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Science Fiction Film examines one of the most enduring and popular
genres of Hollywood cinema, suggesting how the science fiction film
reflects attitudes toward science, technology, and reason as they have
evolved in American culture over the course of the twentieth century.
J. P. Telotte provides a survey of science fiction film criticism, empha-
sizing humanist, psychological, ideological, feminist, and postmodern
critiques. He also sketches a history of the genre, from its earliest liter-
ary manifestations to the present, while touching on and comparing
it to pulp fiction, early television science fiction, and Japanese anime.
Telotte offers in-depth readings of four key films: RoboCop, Close En-
counters of the Third Kind, THX 1138, and The Fly, each of which illus-
trates a particular fantastic branch of science fiction, as well as the dif-
ficulties of any genre classification. Challenging the boundaries usually
seen between high and low culture, literature and film, science fiction
and horror, Science Fiction Film reasserts the central role of fantasy in
popular films, even those concerned with reason, science, and tech-

J. P. Telotte is Professor of Literature, Communication, and Culture at

the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books
including Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film and
A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age. He is
coeditor of the journal Post Script and a member of the editorial boards
of Literature/Film Quarterly and South Atlantic Review.

General Editor
Barry Keith Grant, Brock University, Ontario, Canada

Genres in American Cinema examines the significance of Amer-

ican films in a series of single-authored volumes, each dedicated
to a different genre. Each volume will provide a comprehensive
account of its genre, from enduring classics to contemporary re-
visions, from marginal appropriations to international inflections,
emphasizing its distinctive qualities as well as its cultural, his-
torical, and critical contexts. Their approach will be methodolog-
ically broad, balancing theoretical and historical discussion with
close readings of representative films. Designed for use as class-
room texts, the books will be intellectually rigorous, yet written
in a style that is lively and accessible to students and general
audiences alike.
J. P. Telotte
Georgia Institute of Technology
         
The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom

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© Cambridge University Press 2004

First published in printed format 2001

ISBN 0-511-03495-4 eBook (Adobe Reader)

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List of Illustrations page ix

Acknowledgments xiii


1 Introduction: The World of the Science Fiction Film 3

Science Fiction as Fantasy, 10 • Genre Determinations, 16 •
A Tradition of Trickery, 24 • Genre Thinking, 30

2 Science Fiction Film: The Critical Context 33

Science Fiction and Humanism, 35 • Susan Sontag, 38 •
Ideological Criticism, 40 • Psychoanalytic Criticism, 45 •
Feminism, 49 • Postmodernism, 54 • Synthesis, 58


3 A Trajectory of the American Science Fiction Film 63

Antecedents, 64 • Literature, 64 • The Pulps, 69 • Science
Fiction Literature, 75 • Early Science Fiction Cinema, 77 • The
Machine Age, 81 • The Serials, 90 • Springtime for Caliban,
94 • Post-2001, 102 • A New Myth, 105 • Postmodern Science
Fiction, 108 • Science Fiction and Gender, 110 • The Anime
Influence, 112 • Special Effects, 116


4 The Science Fiction Film as Fantastic Text: THX 1138 123

5 The Science Fiction Film as Marvelous Text:
Close Encounters of the Third Kind 142
6 The Science Fiction Film as Uncanny Text: RoboCop 161
7 Crossing Genre Boundaries / Bound by Fantasy:
The Fly (1986) 179

❖ vii
viii ❖ C O N T E N T S

8 Conclusion: A Note on Boundaries 197

Critical Consensus, 199 • Dynamics of Genre, 201

Notes 205
Bibliography 219
Select Filmography of the American Science Fiction Film 225
Index 245

1. Crossing genre boundaries – Frankenstein (1931) 5

2. Starship Troopers (1997) translates the World War II combat film
into outer space 6
3. The film-noir look and detective protagonist of Blade Runner (1982) 7
4. Technology and thrills, the mixed payoff offered by Forbidden
Planet’s (1956) trailer 7
5. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) measures out the impact of
forces beyond the human realm 12
6. A utopian future world as envisioned by H. G. Wells and Things
to Come (1936) 13
7. The threatening technological double: The advanced cyborg of
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) as police officer 15
8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): A pod begins growing “an
impostor or something” 20
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): Emotion as the last desperate
proof of humanity 21
10. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): Jack resists efforts to
“rationalize” his other self 23
11. A tradition of “trickery” in the science fiction film: A model
rocketship from the Flash Gordon serial (1936) 26
12. A tradition of “trickery”: Rear projection and outsized sets in
Dr. Cyclops (1940) 27
13. A tradition of “trickery”: Peter Ellenshaw’s special effects put a
meteor inside a space ship in The Black Hole (1979) 27
14. The new “trickery”: Jurassic Park (1992) combines live action with
digitally generated dinosaurs 29
15. Early critical attention focuses on “classic” works, such as the
H. G. Wells–scripted Things to Come (1936) 37
16. A modern “classic” dominates humanist conceptions of the genre:
The Stanley Kubrick–Arthur C. Clarke film 2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968) 38
17. Sontag’s “Imagination of Disaster” takes shape in the giant mutant
ants of Them! (1954) 39
18. Technophobia given reason in Demon Seed (1977), as computer-
controlled mechanisms attack humans 42
19. The social vision of the science fiction film, here embodied in the
technologically sustained city-state of Logan’s Run (1976) 43

❖ ix
x ❖ I L L U S T R AT I O N S

20. The military tries to keep The Thing from Another World (1951)
behind a locked door, as science fiction simplifies cold-war
tensions 44
21. Poster for Forbidden Planet (1956) depicts technology – the robot –
as a projection of the primitive and threatening subconscious 47
22. Science fiction imagery opens onto archetypal readings, here with
the robot of The Invisible Boy (1957) as savior and protector 47
23. The Stepford Wives (1975) illustrates a widespread concern with
cultural repression of the feminine 51
24. Alien (1979) translates the primal scene of birth into a technological
context 53
25. A Clockwork Orange (1972) suggests the cultural construction of
gender roles in the trappings of its futuristic nightclub 54
26. The problems of postmodern identity, of the human bound to
technology, are at the core of Total Recall (1990) 55
27. Blade Runner (1982) envisions the postindustrial cityscape and
world of late capitalism in its downtown Los Angeles of 2020 57
28. One of the primary pulps, Gernsback’s Amazing Stories (1927)
offers audiences “scientifiction” and reprints the work of H. G.
Wells 71
29. From the comic strips to the movies, Buck Rogers faces danger in
the 1939 serial 73
30. The start for one of Méliès’s fantastic journeys in one of the first
science fiction films, A Trip to the Moon (1902) 79
31. Machines typically go out of control in silent comedy, as we see
when one “swallows” Chaplin in Modern Times (1936) 83
32. The most influential vision of the futuristic city, Fritz Lang’s
Metropolis (1926) 84
33. Just Imagine’s American vision of the utopian city, New York of
1980 as imagined in 1930 85
34. American science fiction draws on early roots, one of Jules Verne’s
extraordinary voyages depicted in The Mysterious Island (1929) 87
35. The scientist manipulates animal genes to produce human simulacra
in Island of Lost Souls (1933) 88
36. Genre-straddling films: Mainstays of horror, Bela Lugosi and Boris
Karloff, struggle for scientific power in The Invisible Ray (1936) 89
37. Genre-straddling films: El Brendel appreciates the fashions of the
future in the comic musical science fiction film Just Imagine
(1930) 91
38. The first Flash Gordon (1936) serial: Dr. Zarkov, Dale Arden, and
Flash are taken prisoner by the Emperor Ming’s guard 92
39. The mixed action of the serials: The cowboy Gene Autry in The
Phantom Empire’s (1935) futuristic city of Murania 93
40. Articulating cold-war anxieties about nuclear warfare and invasion:
The War of the Worlds (1953) 96
41. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) urges peaceful coexistence on
a violent Earth 97
I L L U S T R A T I O N S ❖ xi

42. Nuclear nightmares envisioned, with the help of Ray Harryhausen’s

stop-motion animation, in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) 99
43. Affirming technology in the conquest of space – the robot-
controlled star cruiser of Forbidden Planet (1956) 101
44. Giving a human shape to technology in the robot-preparation ward
of Westworld (1973) 103
45. Return of the Jedi (1983): The Star Wars films offer a new mythology,
one compatible with the technological as embodied in the servile
robots C3PO and R2D2 107
46. Through its various “replicants,” Blade Runner (1982) poses
troubling questions about postmodern human identity 109
47. Two versions of the cultural construction of gender: The creation
of the robot Maria in Metropolis (1926); repairing the perfect
robotic mate in Cherry 2000 (1987) 111
48. The Japanese anime influence: Apocalyptic imagery in Akira (1988) 114
49. The anime protagonist (Akira, 1988): Half-machine, half-human,
literally a product of postmodern culture 115
50. CGI (computer-generated imagery) first surfaces in the genre to
suggest the inside of a computer world – Tron (1982) 117
51. CGI combines with live action to produce a new kind of “animated”
in Tron (1982) 117
52. Apocalyptic scenarios of the 1930s and 1950s return for the new
millennium in such films as Starship Troopers (1997) 119
53. THX is trapped in the sterile, horizonless prison of the futuristic
world envisioned by THX 1138 (1971) 131
54. THX hesitates in the midst of his long, difficult climb to freedom
in THX 1138 139
55. The official effort to track and make “sense” out of the UFO visitors
in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). 150
56. A “marvelous” intervention into the rational world, as an alien ship
arrives at the scientific installation atop Devils Tower in Close
Encounters of the Third Kind 151
57. Roy Neary is greeted by the childlike alien visitors of Close
Encounters of the Third Kind 153
58. The “light show” conclusion to Close Encounters of the Third Kind 157
59. The robot Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) provides a
recognizable model for the technologized Murphy of RoboCop
(1987) 163
60. RoboCop, the perfect technological crime-fighter, goes into action 169
61. The double or doppelgänger theme visualized as RoboCop
apprehends his own “killer” 171
62. Officer Lewis helps restore Murphy’s identity as she asks him for
his name, in RoboCop 173
63. Ronnie and Seth recoil at the sight of the first matter-transport
experiment in The Fly (1986) 183
64. Seth tries to program what he knows about “the flesh” into his
computer in The Fly 185
xii ❖ I L L U S T R A T I O N S

65. The Fly’s Seth Brundle experiments on himself with his womblike
matter transporter 187
66. In one of the first signs that Seth’s experiment has gone awry, he
becomes sexually predatory in The Fly 189
67. Infused with a fly’s genes, Seth becomes compulsive and violent
in The Fly 191
68. Crossing genre boundaries in The Fly: The scientific overreacher
mutates into the monster of horror 193
69. A nightmarish image of genre boundary crossing in the cult classic
Robot Monster (1953) 199
70. Within that land without borders that is science fiction narrative:
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) 202

A number of people have contributed their time, resources, and gen-

eral knowledge to the creation of this book and deserve special men-
tion. As in much of my past research into science fiction literature and
film, I have drawn heavily on the knowledge and insights of my col-
league Bud Foote, who, I am convinced, knows more about science fic-
tion than any living human. Several of my other colleagues at Georgia
Tech and in the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts
have contributed their advice and insights to this work. No less impor-
tant are my students at Georgia Tech, especially those in my Genres of
Fantasy course, who have always asked the toughest questions while
also sharing their own, often considerable knowledge about the sci-
ence fiction genre.
In working with Cambridge University Press I have been fortunate
to have the guidance of Beatrice Ruhl and the attention to detail of
Michael Gnat as this project has pushed forward. The foremost influ-
ence on this book, though, is undoubtedly Barry Grant, whose work on
film genres has always provided a valuable yardstick for my own. Pro-
fessor Grant has contributed in various ways to the shaping of prac-
tically every chapter, while also prodding me to think more carefully
about the films and the cultural circumstances that produced them. He
has simply been the model editor, and I thank him especially for all his
help on this project.

❖ xiii

Introduction: The World of the
Science Fiction Film

henever students of film approach the science fiction genre,
it appears they immediately find themselves facing a kind
of paradox, one akin to the problematic logic built into the
form’s combinatory designation – that is, as science and fiction, as fact
and fabrication. For a genre that would seem to be almost self-evidently
itself tends to slip away, to evade its own evidence or facticity. It is, af-
ter all, particularly as its literary practitioners would argue, manifestly
about science and scientific possibility – even probability. In fact, it
commonly proposes the sort of “what if” game in which scientists are
typically engaged as they set about designing experiments and con-
ducting their research: extrapolating from the known in order to ex-
plain the unknown. Thus, the writer and legendary pulp editor John W.
Campbell Jr. instructed that science fiction should be “an effort to pre-
dict the future on the basis of known facts, culled largely from present-
day laboratories.”1 Yet that prescription, which went far to shape the
developing literature of science fiction in the United States, hardly ac-
counts for the full appeal of the form – an appeal that some would pass
off as due to its adolescent character, others would trace to its arche-
typal elements, and still others would explain as fundamental to its
speculative nature, its expression of common human curiosity. It is an
appeal, in any case, that has, over time, lured some of Western culture’s
most important fictionalists (Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, H. G. Wells,
Aldous Huxley, Walker Percy) to try their hands at its subject matter.
Especially in its cinematic form, however, science fiction often seems
to appeal precisely because it lends itself to the greatest imaginative
capacities of the film medium: to its ability, through what we very
broadly term “special effects,” to give shape and being to the imagina-
tion. It is a form, then, that often seems quite difficult to pin down satis-
Efforts at defining the literary form have often begun by wrestling
precisely with this sense of difficulty. A self-professed “outsider’s guide-

❖ 3

book” to the world of science fiction, David Hartwell’s Age of Wonders

suggests that science fiction is “so diverse” in its forms and subjects
that it defies any simple definition. Rather, Hartwell argues that “sci-
ence fiction has been an umbrella under which any kind of estrange-
ment from reality is welcome” and indeed entirely suited to the genre
with its emphasis on “wonder,”2 so he sets about describing the genre
by focusing on its audience, on the diverse community and interests
of science fiction readers. An overview of science fiction aimed at those
already familiar with the form, Edward James’s Science Fiction in the
Twentieth Century, from the start announces that it is “an attempt to
define science fiction,” yet one which recognizes that “a proper defini-
tion can be achieved only by understanding what authors are trying to
do or have tried to do” throughout the form’s existence. It thus charts
a historical path, looking at “how definitions of sf [science fiction]
changed as sf itself changed,” and how “the development of sf as a liter-
ary category is bound up with attempts to define it and with attempts
by writers to live up to those definitions.”3 In marked contrast, Darko
Suvin in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, a theoretical work aimed
mainly at a scholarly audience, assumes that science fiction is a readily
recognizable form, “a full-fledged literary genre” having “its own reper-
tory of functions, conventions, and devices,” all of which are fairly well
known. Still, even as he begins laying out his own Brechtian-inspired
and rather elegant definition of the form as a “literature of cognitive
estrangement,” that is, a form intent on defamiliarizing reality through
various generic strategies in order to reflect on it more effectively,
Suvin eventually begins to pare away types of text that do not fit into
his scheme, particularly various versions of fantasy and some utopian
writing.4 In assuming a sort of fundamental coherence, he thus imme-
diately begins to qualify what he is trying to define, limiting his scheme
to “the genre as it is here conceived”5 as a way around a definitional
That same sense of difficulty extends, and perhaps even more vis-
ibly so, to our sense of what constitutes cinematic science fiction; for
although the genre certainly sports an iconography that immediately
asserts a kind of identity and one with which the average filmgoer is
usually quite familiar – rockets, robots, futuristic cities, alien encoun-
ters, fantastic technology, scientists (mad or otherwise) – these icons
or generic conventions have, within the critical establishment and, to
a lesser degree, even in the popular mind, never quite satisfactorily
served to bracket it off as a discrete form, something we might easily

Figure 1. Crossing genre boundaries – Frankenstein (1931).

categorize and thus set about systematically studying. Invariably, for

example, the form seems to bulk into the realm of horror, as is evi-
denced by such varied films as Frankenstein (1931) [Fig. 1], Dr. Cyclops
(1940), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and, more recently, the
films in the Alien cycle (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997), thanks to their empha-
sis on physical confrontation and threat that occur within a context
marked by those trappings we associate with science fiction. Similarly,

Figure 2. Starship Troopers (1997) translates the World War II combat film into
outer space.

a relatively minor form like the disaster film often seems to subsume
both genres, as we see in works like Dante’s Peak (1997), Deep Impact
(1998), and Armageddon (1998). Additionally, the science fiction film
very often shares characteristics with other popular genres, even bor-
rows rather forthrightly from a broad range of them, as we find in the
case of Outland (1981) and its echoes of the western, Starship Troopers
(1997) [Fig. 2] and its imitation of a host of World War II films, Blade
Runner (1982) [Fig. 3] and Dark City (1998) with their dependence on
the conventions and look of the American film noir, and especially the
Star Wars saga (1977, 1980, 1983, 1999), which borrows by turns from
westerns, war films, Japanese samurai epics, and the serials. So when
a pioneering genre critic such as Carlos Clarens set about surveying
the history of the horror film, readers might only have expected that
he would incorporate science fiction, as well as the disaster film, into
his field of inquiry. Following this vein, we can discover many other
surveys of the genre, as well as treatments of selected films, that have
simply treated horror and science fiction as if they were essentially the
same thing, and still others that view science fiction as if it were merely
a pastiche form,6 lacking a secure identity of its own [Fig. 4].

Figure 3. The film-noir look and detective protagonist of Blade Runner (1982).

Figure 4. Technology and thrills, the mixed payoff offered by Forbidden Planet’s
(1956) trailer.

Despite these difficulties of identity – and, of course, partly because

of them – it still seems that a first task of almost anyone who sets out
to describe, explain, or analyze specific science fiction film texts has
often become the same as that facing any student of genre, that is, one
of differentiation. Every study of a film genre, either explicitly or implic-
itly, begins from similarly problematic issues: concerns with what to
include and what to exclude, and on what basis we can begin to make
those determinations. These issues constitute what is often referred
to as the empirical dilemma, which poses the question of how we can
ever determine what characteristics typify a genre without first deter-
mining what texts constitute the genre, even though that very decision
about textual inclusiveness would logically seem to hinge upon prior
decisions about the genre’s identity or definition.7 One approach is to
postulate an essential nature for the form, and then, as Suvin does, be-
gin to pare away those works that violate its logic. This strategy usu-
ally produces a coherent if rather narrowly defined body of work. The
more popular recourse is to work from a common consensus on the
generic canon, to accept for purposes of initial analysis and argument
all those works that have previously been included in various discus-
sions of a certain genre.8 Such an approach allows for inclusiveness,
absorbs differing critical vantages, and, perhaps most important, per-
mits critical discussion to move forward.
Obviously, casting the generic net so widely has its drawbacks as
well. For example, we inevitably pull in works that can blur the issue,
that challenge the very possibilities of boundary, and that, at least ini-
tially, seem to frustrate any effort at focusing attention. A serial like The
Phantom Creeps (1939), for example, has all the trappings of a crime/
gangster film, a type quite popular in the 1930s; it stars an actor, Bela
Lugosi, who was always iconographically linked to the horror genre;
yet it also includes a mad scientist, an invisibility ray, and a menacing
robot – clearly the stuff of science fiction. This sort of generic cross-
over is far from uncommon, as we can see with the great number of
comic–horror and comic–science fiction films – movies like the Bob
Hope vehicle The Ghost Breakers (1940), Abbott and Costello Meet Frank-
enstein (1946), Ghostbusters (1984), Spaceballs (1987), Mars Attacks!
(1996), The Fifth Element (1997) – and, more significant for our pur-
poses, the horror–science fiction films that, after their heyday in the
early 1930s, have once more become very popular, as the Alien series
amply illustrates. Differentiation – or at least an attempt at it – has thus
often become a first, yet always still rather problematic step in most

genre analysis, and a point on which this study too must initially spend
some time.
In what is one of the most often-reprinted essays on popular film
genres, Bruce Kawin takes precisely this differentiating tack. Starting
from the understanding that science fiction and horror films are typ-
ically linked and conflated, he has set about defining the forms by di-
rectly contrasting certain of their key and recurring elements. While he
admits that the genres share many common features – especially mad
scientists and monstrous “others” – and that they even “organize them-
selves” in similar ways – particularly through their depicted encoun-
ters with some unexpected and seemingly threatening “other” – he be-
lieves that their fundamental concerns are quite distinctive and that
the two genres “promote growth in different ways.”9 Horror films, he
argues, “address . . . the unconscious,” whereas science fiction deals
with “the conscious – if not exactly the scientist in us, then certainly
the part of the brain that enjoys speculating on technology, gimmicks,
and the perfectible future.”10 Moreover, he suggests, the genres’ re-
spective “attitudes” are different, particularly toward “curiosity and the
openness of systems”;11 that is, while horror, he argues, seeks to close
the door on the unknown and to suggest how dangerous an unbridled
curiosity can be, science fiction opens it and embraces that very open-
ness as an opportunity for intellectual growth. In effect, Kawin believes
that the horror and science fiction films offer audiences two quite dif-
ferent sorts of pleasure or satisfaction in the distinct ways they con-
firm or challenge our relationships to the world and to others.
If Kawin’s comparison seems a bit too pat, too easy – and often
seems to force works into a category almost against their generic will,
as in the case of films like The Thing from Another World (1951) and
Alien – it can serve an important purpose, especially at the outset of
this study. It reminds us that genres resist being easily pinned down,
thanks to one of their key characteristics: their vitality, the fact that
they are constantly changing in response to a variety of cultural and
industrial influences, and thus pushing at the very outlines we would,
it so often seems, like to set for them – and to maintain against all crit-
ical objection. The science fiction film – in part because it has been
so very popular over the past thirty years, and because we have seen
in that time so many variations on the form, so many efforts to keep it
new and vital to our culture – may well prove more protean than most
of our other popular genres, as well as more resistant to that pigeon-
holing impulse. For example, as scientific developments have increas-
10 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

ingly begun to encroach on territory that we had traditionally ceded

to religion and morality, as in the various concerns surrounding human
origins, genetic manipulation, euthanasia, and gender reassignment,
the science fiction film has more often begun to broach “supernatural”
issues, as in the case of films like Cocoon (1985), Stargate (1994), Event
Horizon (1997), and Contact (1997), to pursue that notion of “curiosity,”
as Kawin would put it, in some rather unexpected, even theological di-
rections, of a sort precisely linked to the horror film of past times. How-
ever, we should take it as a sign of the genre’s vitality that it is constant-
ly changing, pushing its limits, bulking beyond the borders that we
would, for our own intellectual contentment, conventionally assign to
it. The science fiction film has simply proven to be one of our most flex-
ible popular genres – and perhaps for that very reason, one of our most
culturally useful. Consequently, we might begin our own consideration
of the genre simply by thinking in terms of a “supertext” of the science
fiction film, that is, what genre critic John Cawelti describes as the col-
lection “of the most significant characteristics or family resemblances
among many particular texts, which can accordingly be analyzed,
evaluated, and otherwise related to each other by virtue of their con-
nection with” this “consolidation of many texts created at different
times.”12 What constitutes the supertext of science fiction, then, is not
any one film or even an ideal science fiction film, but rather that large
body of all the films and their similar characteristics that we might rea-
sonably or customarily link to the genre. Moreover, that supertext is
always expanding, ever broadening the potential field for subsequent
films in the genre, and constantly making the job of describing and an-
alyzing this form a more complex, even daunting process – and yet for
that very reason an instructive and valuable experience for the larger
practice of genre thinking.

Science Fiction as Fantasy

One way in which this classification effort can prove especially useful
is in the way it reminds us of the general limits that film studies often
seem to set on how we conventionally think about genres. Tzvetan
Todorov in his structuralist examination of “the fantastic” as a literary
form – a work from which the present study draws heavily – offers an
instructive example in this regard on several levels. Before beginning
to describe his own field of inquiry, the fantastic text, he takes on what
has become a canonical work of literary criticism, Northrop Frye’s
Anatomy of Criticism, a study that proposed a kind of “unified field the-

ory” of literary genres based on what Frye termed mythoi. Todorov

finds in that work a troubling focus on what he describes as “theoret-
ical genres” at the expense of “historical genres,” a privileging of the
ideal over the very real literary texts with which readers are most fa-
miliar and which, in Frye’s work, seem forced through various manip-
ulations to “fit” into prescribed categories.13 His dissatisfaction with
Frye’s approach forms the backdrop for his own study of fantasy, a lit-
erary form that seems closely allied to a number of film genres cited
above. As in the case of horror, for example, the fantastic very often
involves fear, although, as Todorov reminds us, “it is not a necessary
condition of the genre”; and while it might, as science fiction often
does, emphasize “laws which contemporary science does not acknowl-
edge,” such an emphasis might constitute only a small dimension of the
form.14 However, more to the point for this study – and for that pigeon-
holing tendency to which we are all prone – is Todorov’s argument that
the fantastic exists only in relationship to other narrative types. It thus
denotes a constantly shifting – and hence shifty – field of narrative ex-
perience that simply resists the sort of analytic that a Frye would offer.
Thus he suggests that we can talk about it as a genre only insofar as
we recognize the very blurred boundaries that mark its existence.
The fantastic – the relationship of which to science fiction we shall
pursue shortly – exists on a kind of sliding scale with two other forms
that Todorov terms the uncanny and the marvelous. While the uncanny
narrative focuses on the unconscious or, more generally, the mind as
a force producing seemingly inexplicable events, and the marvelous on
the supernatural or spiritual realm as it intrudes into and challenges
our everyday world, the fantastic occupies that point of “hesitation”
between the two: the realm of what might or might not be, where real-
ity itself seems a puzzle, waiting for us to reconstruct it. It is, in effect,
a border form, one that can exist only in a liminal situation, as we try
to sort out how the narrative relates to and challenges our normative
view of reality. Extrapolating from his schematic for fantasy, then, To-
dorov formulates a simple yet elegant guideline for genre thinking, as
he suggests that “genres are precisely those relay-points by which the
work assumes a relation with the universe of literature”15 – or for our
purposes, with the “universe” of film narrative.
If, from this vantage, we come to accept, and even incorporate into
our thinking about the science fiction film, a kind of inevitable ambi-
guity, a blurring of boundaries bound up in such “relay points” as mad
scientists and unexplained monsters, we can also draw from it a use-
ful element of structural thinking, a bit of local organization to super-
12 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

Figure 5. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) measures out the impact of forces
beyond the human realm.

impose on an inevitably shifty genre; for we might rather easily map

Todorov’s delineation of fantasy into three component narrative fields
– the marvelous, fantastic, and uncanny – onto the terrain of the sci-
ence fiction film, and especially onto its most common narrative types,
which themselves seem to exist only in a kind of liminal state. To do
so, we need only consider what seem to be the three large-scale fas-
cinations of the genre: first, the impact of forces outside the human
realm, of encounters with alien beings and other worlds (or other
times); second, the possibility of changes in society and culture,
wrought by our science and technology; and third, technological alter-
ations in and substitute versions of the self. In the first of these, exem-
plified in some small measure of its variety by such films as The Day
the Earth Stood Still (1951) [Fig. 5], Close Encounters of the Third Kind
(1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Independence Day (1996),
we glimpse perhaps the most truly speculative thrust of the form, as it
explores the impact of encounters with the alien or other, or simply the
exploration of the unknown through flights into outer space, an impact

Figure 6. A utopian future world as envisioned by H. G. Wells and Things to

Come (1936).

that inevitably expands the scope of our knowledge, explodes our very
perception of the universe, as we see in the admonitory closing line to
the original The Thing . . . : “Watch the skies! Keep watching!” It effec-
tively alters our whole sense of reality. The second, which has offered
us a host of utopian and dystopian visions, foregrounds the promise –
as well as the menace – of reason, science, and technology to remake
our world and rework our relationship to it, seen most dramatically in
such films as Metropolis (1926), Just Imagine (1930), Things to Come
(1936) [Fig. 6], THX 1138 (1971), Logan’s Run (1976), Brazil (1986), and
14 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

Dark City. The third category looks at the human applications of sci-
ence and technology, the reshapings of and modelings upon the self
that have produced the various robots, androids, cyborgs, and “en-
hanced” beings of films like Westworld (1973), The Terminal Man (1974),
Blade Runner (1982), RoboCop and its sequels (1987, 1990, 1993), and
the two Terminator films (1984, 1991) [Fig. 7]. These three fascinations,
as I have termed them, closely link the film genre to its literary branch,
for Edward James in the course of his historical definition of science
fiction argues that the large canon of literature easily divides itself by
subject into three broad story groups: “the extraordinary voyage . . .
the tale of the future . . . and the tale of science (notably concerned
with marvelous inventions).”16 And, of course, any discussion of the
science fiction genre, as our later overview of its history will suggest,
must make some effort at placing it in the context of that far longer lit-
erary history on which it has so often drawn. By considering those en-
counters with alien forces/beings as a type of marvelous narrative, the
concern with futuristic societies in the context of Todorov’s fantastic
category, and alterations of the self as uncanny, we might not only be-
gin to satisfy an element of that common desire for pattern, for organi-
zation, for rational delineation from which most genre thinking seems
invariably to spring, but also better conceptualize the kinship or over-
lap among a number of genres – especially horror and the musical –
that might at various times be drawn in under that broad heading of
Although Todorov never offers any detailed discussion of science
fiction, he certainly affords us a useful signpost down this path, for in
his description of the marvelous, particularly the variety he terms the
“instrumental marvelous,” he notes that we come “very close” to what
“today we call science fiction.”18 As he offers, the science fiction narra-
tive typically sets about explaining in a rational manner what, in some
contexts, might seem supernatural; that is, it attempts to reframe some
challenging phenomenon in terms of “new” laws of nature. More sim-
ply, I would suggest that we see the genre’s often depicted encounter
with the alien or alien civilization as involving us in just the sort of
transcendent rationale that is fundamental to the marvelous as Todor-
ov and others have described it. It takes as its impetus a variety of what
Todorov terms “themes of the other.” Following this lead, we might
look to the other end of the fantasy scale and consider all of those
works organized around the artificial being – the technological trope
for the self – as types of uncanny text. Again, Todorov marks off the

Figure 7. The threatening technological double: The advanced cyborg of Ter-

minator 2: Judgment Day (1991) as police officer.

path as he describes one basic category of fantasy themes as “themes

of the self,” those that focus especially on such subjects as “multipli-
cation of the personality” and the “collapse of the limit between sub-
ject and object.”19 In that very image of the self replicated, of the un-
conscious given substance, then, we can begin to make out an uncanny
shape for our science fiction as well. All of its stories of created selves,
of robots and androids practically indistinguishable from the human,
16 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

even from very specific human beings, lead us back precisely to an in-
quiry into our very humanity and its place in the construction of a hu-
man world. Between these two categories we might place those stories
of future civilizations, of utopian or dystopian societies – narratives
that, as Todorov might explain, explore “the relation of man with his
desire,” desire for a different world or simply a different way of life.20
In the best tradition of the fantastic itself, which, as Torodov explains,
hinges on a moment of hesitation in our ability to explain its effects,
they suggest what might or might not be, what might have been pro-
duced by some alien force or civilization (by some “new” law of na-
ture), or what might only be the product of human dreams, reveries,
or ingenuity, a futuristic equivalent of the Connecticut Yankee’s dreams
of the past. Such categorization might prove valuable not so much by
helping us put the great variety of science fiction narratives into their
own discrete boxes – which could well lead us back in the direction of
Frye and much of popular film criticism – but by letting us see them in
the context of a broad register of science fiction films and, even more
generally, within a pattern of fantasy narrative that inevitably shares
its methods and concerns with other narrative types such as the hor-
ror film.
This latter placement seems particularly useful since through it we
might begin to recognize some of the more general themes that under-
lie and operate along with the form’s treatment of such topical con-
cerns as genetic manipulation (Gattaca, 1997), racial discrimination
(The Brother from Another Planet, 1984), political corruption (The Fifth
Element), corporate greed (the Alien and RoboCop series), and others
– in other words, some of the ways in which the genre’s underlying
themes have proven so very adaptable to current issues, and thus
ways in which the genre has managed to stay vital to our culture. If this
latter move seems in some ways an essentialist approach to the genre
– in suggesting that there are indeed certain fundamental or essential
themes that typify the form – I would accept the charge. However, I
make that move as part of what I see as a necessary explanatory bal-
ance between the relative and the essential, the relational nature of
every genre and its undeniable ability to assert a specific identity.

Genre Determinations
Of course, most viewers seem to have little difficulty in staking out
some fairly clear territory from which to start thinking about the sci-

ence fiction film, and certainly are not much troubled by these sorts of
fundamental questions of generic boundary or definition – all concerns
that are seemingly best left to critics and academics. Anyone who has
watched even a few science fiction films, episodes of a Flash Gordon
serial, or several episodes of the Star Trek or Babylon 5 television se-
ries, for example, would probably argue that he or she could, with little
hesitation, decide if a certain work belongs within the science fiction
category. That sense of certainty probably springs from the fact that
the typical viewer easily recognizes particular hallmarks, visual icons
that, over the course of many years, have helped constitute a common
signature that cultural consensus or historical use has by now assigned
to the genre. Included in this broad category are such things as charac-
ter types, situations, clothing, lighting, tools or weaponry, settings – all
those elements that have often been described as the “language” of the
genre, and much of which has been long established in the popular
consciousness thanks to the corresponding literary tradition and its re-
liance on illustration, on visualizing its “what if” scenarios. Despite the
haphazard ways in which such commonplace elements are often cited
by reviewers, noted in introductory film texts, or even intruded into ca-
sual conversation, they have invariably proved a useful starting point
for much discussion of formulaic narrative and have been readily
adapted into structural descriptions of a variety of genres, as is illus-
trated by Edward Buscombe’s efforts to subsume such elements into
a scheme of “inner” and “outer forms” for genre discussion.21 Never-
theless, if, in comparison to the genre dimensions that Todorov ex-
plores, these elements point up a potentially more significant level of
specificity for genre identity – that is, if they almost immediately make
the form recognizable to most viewers – they also seem to tell us little
about what specific texts mean for us or the genre’s place in a cultural
In an effort to deal with the sort of vagaries that have often attend-
ed earlier genre criticism, a criticism that typically took as its starting
and ending point those immediate signifiers of identity, Rick Altman
has outlined a useful structural model, an unnoticed virtue of which is
that it draws precisely upon a combination of that generalized com-
mon consensus and iconic specificity. This “semantic/syntactic” de-
scription of a genre’s workings, adapted from linguistics, helps to iso-
late the elements that contribute to the genre text’s meanings and
provides a paradigm for sketching out a formula’s most distinctive
icons and narrative events. It does so by considering the generic text,
18 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

first, as “a list of common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations,

sets, and the like,” and second, as a group of “certain constitutive rela-
tionships . . . into which they are arranged.”22 While the iconic ele-
ments represent the genre’s semantic dimension, its language, those re-
lationships – the plot developments, character actions, typical events
– form its syntax, its grammatical structure. When taken together, the
semantic and syntactic elements allow us to model the structure of any
particular generic text, compare it to other examples of the genre (i.e.,
other parts of the supertext) appearing either at the same time (a syn-
chronic comparison) or at some other point in film history (a diachronic
comparison), and measure it against any closely allied genres with
which it might share semantic and/or syntactic elements. Simply put,
the measurement of difference (e.g., from other contemporary films,
from earlier or later examples of the genre, from different genres) al-
lows us to begin assessing the various implications of a specific text
and its particular way of expressively mobilizing the genre’s elements.
Furthermore, Altman suggests that, when viewed in the proper histori-
cal context, this model might even help us in understanding a genre’s
very formation: how it first came into being, as a set of semantic units
gradually acquired a body of syntactic structures in response to cer-
tain cultural conditions. As a systematic approach, one that might help
us deal with a genre in terms of both the problems it poses for critics
and historians and the attitudes of typical moviegoers, this model has
much to offer.
Still, for all of its usefulness, this fundamental structural model also
has its limitations. Like all structural paradigms, it treats the text as if
it were indeed a formal language, one that consistently abides by a for-
mal grammar; and like most contemporary criticism, it avoids any sort
of essentialist conclusion, proceeding not just as if every genre worked
in much the same way, but also as if each potentially offered the same
meanings – at least if several genres were to draw on the same se-
mantic field, for it stops short of actually accounting for genre-specific
themes. We might more accurately think of a genre, though, not as a
language with a formal grammar, but rather as a kind of colloquial
speech, the popular use of a language that very often casts grammar
aside, gives to words whole new meanings – meanings prone to shift
with time or completely fall out of use, as it fashions its own quite ser-
viceable slang. In this sense, the science fiction film, as an example of
a particular cinematic “slang,” invariably has its own meanings, which
attach to its most identifiable concerns. As Susan Sontag argues in her

well-known essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” the science fiction film

is rooted in a fundamental triad of reason, science, and technology –
that is, in a certain way of thinking, a body of knowledge that derives
from that thinking, and an instrumentality produced by and reflective
of that knowledge.23 These elements produce a characteristic stamp
of their own, a most telling inflection for this popular slang.
In fact, it seems almost self-evident that a great part of the science
fiction film’s special character derives from this focus on the concerns
of reason/science/technology. It has proven such a popular form in re-
cent years precisely because its peculiar argot not only provides us
with a most appropriate language for talking about a large dimension
of technologically inflected postmodern culture, but also because its
fundamental themes help us make sense of our culture’s quandaries.
In addition, I would insist that there are fundamental themes consis-
tently at work in this genre, although they may well surface less power-
fully or centrally in other genres as well. Through its emphasis on tech-
nology, the science that has produced it, and the rational world view
in which that science is imbedded, the genre repeatedly articulates
certain themes that, to return to our previous framework, we might see
as linked at various levels of specificity to Todorov’s three categories
of fantasy.
We might benefit here by turning to a specific cinematic illustration,
the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a 1956 film whose resonance
in the genre is attested by the 1978 and 1993 remakes which it has in-
spired, and by its derivation from a popular science fiction story by
Jack Finney. In the original film the small town of Santa Mira finds itself
in the grip of what the local psychiatrist terms a case of “mass delu-
sion,” the sense that no one is who he or she seems to be, as if all iden-
tities had simply become unhinged from the town’s inhabitants. Seek-
ing the advice of the town doctor, Miles Bennel, a character explains
that her uncle is not really her uncle, but rather “an impostor or some-
thing,” marked particularly by a coldness and lack of emotion that she
cannot fully explain. When a day later she retracts her complaint, tell-
ing Miles she was just being “silly” in her suspicions, the real thrust of
this image of the “impostor or something” becomes clear. It is largely
about a fear of the other, about what is “out there,” but also about what
that otherness means for the self, the fundamental strike it makes at
our own sense of security and identity. In this case that fear is eventu-
ally justified by the revelation that alien seed pods have begun “snatch-
ing” people’s bodies while they sleep and replacing their real selves
20 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

Figure 8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): A pod begins growing “an im-
postor or something.”

with something inhuman [Fig. 8]. Here, I would suggest, we are operat-
ing in a marvelous context, exploring Todorov’s themes of the other,
themes that, as Rosemary Jackson in her study of the fantastic offers,
find both their power and attraction precisely in their ability “to dis-
turb the familiar and the known.”24 That specific theme of the “impos-
tor or something” echoes throughout the science fiction genre, appear-
ing in various degrees across a register of films that envision the other,
including The Thing . . . , Invaders from Mars (1953), Independence Day,
and Starship Troopers.
A second fundamental theme, one sourced in the other end of the
fantastic scale, also surfaces powerfully in Invasion of the Body Snatch-
ers. Fleeing the pod people, Miles and his fiancée, Becky Driscoll, take
refuge in a cave, where he leaves her while he goes in search of help.
Upon returning, he kisses Becky passionately, only to recoil suddenly
in horror, a point underscored by an extreme close-up reaction shot,

Figure 9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): Emotion as the last desperate
proof of humanity.

as he realizes that she too has been replaced by a pod person. His
voice-over then notes, “I never knew the real meaning of fear until . . .
until I kissed Becky.” On one level it seems an almost absurd statement,
a near-comic commentary on desire and its frustrations, and one al-
most certain to draw laughs from some viewers. In this context, how-
ever, it signals an abiding concern of many of our science fiction films:
their tendency to lodge a sense of our humanity in feelings, passion,
desire – and not in the atmosphere of reason and science that would
seem to dominate the world of science fiction [Fig. 9]. In the way the
film emphasizes this theme, often exploiting it for a variety of frissons,
Invasion of the Body Snatchers demonstrates one path by which we
move between the science fiction and horror genres. Such rather su-
perficially different films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Invisible
Ray (1936), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), and Gattaca
suggest that, through our feelings – through our ability to “kiss and
22 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

tell,” as I would term this motif – we can at least be sure about our
selves, our humanity, even as we face a world that seems to deny that
dimension any place or point. Here we are obviously in the realm of the
uncanny, not as a distorted or distorting mind producing a narrative,
but rather as an exploration of what, in an increasingly technological
world, constitutes the self. This “kiss and tell” motif also surfaces pow-
erfully, although to a lesser extent, in works such as Blade Runner,
RoboCop, and the Terminator films.
Between these two themes, and depending heavily upon their mu-
tual existence, is a third that we might see as linked to Todorov’s re-
maining realm of the fantastic. Here too we can turn to Invasion of the
Body Snatchers for our illustration, as well as a testimony to the themes’
interrelationships; for between the point at which characters begin to
announce their strange sense that those near them are not who or
what they seem but an “impostor or something,” and that at which
Miles kisses Becky and recoils in the “kiss and tell” moment, the var-
ious characters in Santa Mira set about trying to square events with
the world they know, to explain away these disturbing differences, al-
though with little success. Thus Miles and his friend Jack share their
anxieties with the town psychiatrist, Danny Kauffmann, who offers a se-
ries of possible explanations – “hallucinations,” “an epidemic of mass
hysteria” – while assuring them that, whatever the problem, “it’s well
within the bounds of human experience.” Jack’s response, an angry
“stop trying to rationalize everything . . . we have a mystery on our
hands” [Fig. 10], obviously echoes Todorov’s notion of the fantastic
proper as marked by a moment of hesitation or indecision, by a kind
of fundamental indeterminacy, as its events slip away from such expla-
nations as hallucination or intervention by forces outside the bounds
of human experience, as this world seems suspended between the
mysterious and the real. More important, however, is the way that pro-
test against rationalization rubs against the very texture of the science
fiction film with its subtle enthronement, as Sontag noted, of reason,
science, and technology. It reminds us that, for all their trafficking in
a world of reason and science, despite their usual dependence on the
imagery of technology, our science fiction films seldom allow that re-
gime to go unchallenged. In fact, they often betray a marked distrust
of it and certainly of its attempts to plan out our lives. That “stop trying
to rationalize” motif may well be the genre’s central secret point, for it
marks the moment when, as such seemingly different films as Metrop-
olis, Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Event

Figure 10. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): Jack resists efforts to “ratio-
nalize” his other self.

Horizon suggest, the genre questions its very fundament, hesitates in

and even subverts its own efforts at explaining and schematizing hu-
man experience.25 It marks a point as well when films like Invasion of
the Body Snatchers reveal their close ties to the horror genre, as they
confront the potentially terrifying implications of that which might not
be explained or even communicated, as we see especially when Miles
Bennel runs along a highway, begging for help, screaming to the com-
placent drivers, “You’re next!” but receiving no response, no aid.
These three themes, of course, are hardly the only ones to be found
in the genre – the form is, as we have already noted, simply far too flex-
ible to be fully accounted for in this way; nor are they, as our reliance
on a single exemplary text such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers
shows, really exclusive to one branch of the genre or another. How-
ever, these themes seem keys to its specific character, as well as focal
points through which it filters, gives a particular science fiction color-
ing to, other and particularly the most pressing cultural issues. Films
24 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

like The Brother from Another Planet, Enemy Mine (1985), and Alien Na-
tion (1988), for example, frame their assault on racial prejudice and
misunderstanding precisely through the “impostor or something” mo-
tif, through our interaction with aliens who are coded as a racial other.
The various repressions of feminine emotion and identity in contem-
porary culture find telling embodiment in Eve of Destruction’s (1991)
“kiss and tell” narrative of a scientist who imprints a destructive cy-
borg with both her conscious and unconscious personality – and that
now displaced and liberated personality, a neat embodiment of a quite
literally “constructed” femininity, produces a destructive display of
passion and emotion. Moreover, the problems of class repression and
class conflict, particularly loaded concerns for a period that had seen
the recent advent of the Russian Revolution, take shape in The Myste-
rious Island’s (1929) “stop trying to rationalize” tale of a mysterious but
benevolent scientist-ruler who repeatedly notes that “on this island, all
men are equal.” Through these key themes, then, we are better able to
see the science fiction genre in its variations doing the basic work of
fantasy, as it traces out what Rosemary Jackson terms “the unsaid and
the unseen of culture.”26

A Tradition of Trickery
What remains omitted from this equation so far is a most significant
component of the science fiction genre, and one that usually becomes
central to the ways it goes about making visible or tracing out these
cultural concerns: More so than any other film genre, science fiction
relies heavily on what we might most broadly term special effects, and
this reliance requires that we consider how the form’s paradigmatic/
syntagmatic elements are linked to its very creation, that is, how the
genre’s concern with the technological engages us in a complex system
of reflections on its own technological underpinnings, and thus on its
own level of reality. This point is made explicit in one of the most
thought-provoking pieces on the science fiction film, Garrett Stewart’s
essay “The ‘Videology’ of Science Fiction,” wherein he describes the
obviously “close collusion between cinematic illusionism and futuristic

[M]ovies about the future tend to be about the future of the movies. Sci-
ence/fiction/film: this is no more the triadic phrase for a movie genre than
three subjects looking on at their own various conjunctions. Science fiction

in the cinema often turns out to be, turns round to be, the fictional or fic-
tive science of the cinema itself, the future feats it may achieve scanned in
line with the technical feat that conceives them right now and before our

Simply put, these films, more than any others, reflect the technology
that makes them possible. As a result, our ability to reproduce things
through computer animation becomes just as central to and even im-
plicated in the narrative of a film like Jurassic Park as is its focal plot
device of reproduction by genetic cloning.
A further implication of Stewart’s description is that, thanks to this
mirror relationship between its technological base and its technolog-
ical subjects, the science fiction cinema invariably betrays a thorough-
ly reflexive character. When we watch a science fiction film, we see as
well a narrative about the movies themselves – about how our technol-
ogy can impact on our humanity, how our technology (and, indeed, our
very rationality) impinges on our world, how our technology might
point beyond our normal sense of reality. More specifically, the genre
to a degree almost inevitably seems to be about the movies precisely
because of the ways in which its reliance on special effects implicates
both the technology of film and the typical concern of most popular
narratives with achieving a transparent realism. As Albert La Valley
puts it, the long tradition of “trickery” in the science fiction film calls
attention to “the nature of illusion and deception in film itself and
in the act of moviegoing.”28 For example, the early efforts of Georges
Méliès, in films like A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voy-
age (1904), rely essentially on the potentials of editing for creating a
new and quite fantastic reality, one in which we are supposed to take
pleasure. By starting, stopping, and then restarting the camera after
altering the subject in some way, Méliès not only created amazing ap-
pearances, disappearances, and transformations, but he also fore-
grounded the importance of the continuity principle and of the illu-
sionist nature of this new medium, reminding us in the process of the
cinema’s capacity to function as a kind of dream machine. In fact, we
might say that it is precisely the tension between such seemingly mag-
ical effects and the desire to make those elements neatly “fit” into a
reality illusion that is the core of his films’ appeal – and, indeed, that
of the entire science fiction genre.
That same tension plays throughout the long history of special-
effects development in the genre following Méliès’s pioneering work
[Figs. 11–13]; and indeed, that interaction between fantastic trickery
26 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

Figure 11. A tradition of “trickery” in the science fiction film: A model rocket
ship from the Flash Gordon serial (1936).

and the medium’s illusionistic practices could well provide its own
scheme for delineating the genre into different categories – categories
based on the degree of illusion achieved or desired. La Valley stakes
out the terms for this sort of approach when he describes how our
films always “aim to demonstrate the current state of the art” and, as
a result, always seem to “demand greater and greater budgets to over-
power their predecessors.” The result is what he terms “a kind of Oed-
ipal cold war,” as “Things to Come answers Metropolis, Star Wars takes
on 2001”29 – or even, we might continue, as the “enhanced” reissues
of the original Star Wars trilogy with their computer-added images and
digitally “cleaned-up” sound tracks supersede the earlier versions of
those films. Similarly, we might think of Metropolis’s development of
the optical tricks of the Schufftan process (which employed a mirror
arrangement to combine live action convincingly with miniatures or
painted backdrops) and the later innovation of the optical printer
(which allowed for the creation of such effects directly in the camera)
as forming a bridge between Méliès’s fantastic mattes and disappear-
ances in clouds of smoke and the recent development of computer-
assisted cameras and computer-generated imagery (CGI) [Fig. 14]. Still,

Figure 12. A tradition of “trickery”: Rear projection and outsized sets in Dr. Cy-
clops (1940).

Figure 13. A tradition of “trickery”: Peter Ellenshaw’s special effects put a me-
teor inside a space ship in The Black Hole (1979).
28 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

regardless of the historical perspective, the key point remains that the
very technological underpinnings of this form contribute fundamen-
tally to its identity, overlapping with its semantics and syntactics to
produce another level of generic identity and, in the process, further
helping to generate a kind of essential identity: a specific thematics
concerning representation and mechanical reproduction that we might
see as a kind of birthmark of the genre.
In fact, the digital image generation made possible by the film indus-
try’s wedding of the computer with traditional cinematography prom-
ises, on one level, to render all film potentially as science fiction or fan-
tasy: With this fast-evolving technology, we have now entered a realm
of reproduction where we can fully play the game of “what if,” techno-
logically visualizing anything we might imagine. As such works as Zelig
(1983) and Forrest Gump (1994) demonstrate, we can produce a “pho-
tographic” record of things that ultimately exist only in the heart of a
computer, or we might digitally resurrect figures from our cinematic
mythology, that is, figures who now exist only in our cultural dreams.
Moreover, that capacity for a computer-generated photorealism, prob-
ably combined in the not-too-distant future with virtual-reality technol-
ogy, could well eventuate in the ultimate science fiction machine: a
“cinema” – and here we must begin to use the word quite loosely – in
which we can easily move into another time and place, a realm sub-
stantially like the very stories we typically tell in the genre. In fact, our
films are already anticipating this move with the wave of films about
virtual-reality experiences that have appeared in the 1990s, works like
The Lawnmower Man (1992), Virtuosity (1995), Strange Days (1995),
Dark City, and The Matrix (1999). However, a new sort of cinema might
well fulfill the promise these films envision, offering us a world that has
not previously and indeed might never exist, one that might operate
according to all new “laws of nature,” and one capable of providing us
with the core experience of all fantasy, as Todorov describes it: the
“collapse of the limits between matter and mind.”30 Here, simply
enough, lies the great promise and potential of science fiction cinema,
its transformation into pure fantasy and its ability to transport us con-
vincingly into that same realm.
Nevertheless, this course also holds a kind of danger, both for our
movies and for our own sense of self. As La Valley sees it, as that tech-
nological capacity and impetus increase, our science fiction films might
eventually come to fixate on the technology to such an extent that
“narrative and characters become recessive under the obsession with

Figure 14. The new “trickery”: Jurassic Park (1992) combines live action with
digitally generated dinosaurs.

technological wizardry.” Under such a fixation, our films could become

ever more removed from “the issues of our present world” – a charge
that critics have, throughout the genre’s history, frequently lodged
against the science fiction film.31 However, as Robert Romanyshyn has
noted in his study of the impact of technology on Western culture, that
sort of danger has, to some degree, always been built into our various
technological accomplishments, not simply because of the ways they
can distract us from our world or fascinate us with all that we might
craft – both of which are indeed dangers to which we have culturally
succumbed outside of the cinema – but rather because of the way that
the technological positions us vis-à-vis the world and others. He argues
that through its vantage – what we might well think of as its implicitly
cinematic nature – technology situates the individual as “a spectator
self behind the window”32 of its instrumentality, distant and detached
from the world, a passive viewer of its unfolding story. Jean Baudrillard
has observed this same effect, suitably drawing on imagery from the
world of science fiction (and inevitably of science fact), to suggest how,
within our postmodern technological environment, “each individual
sees himself promoted to the controls of a hypothetical machine, iso-
lated in a position of perfect sovereignty, at an infinite distance from
30 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

his original universe . . . in the same position as the astronaut in his

bubble”33 – or, we might add, the position of the spectator in front of
his high-definition television screen. It is an image with which our sci-
ence fiction films have, in recent years, made us all too familiar, as they
continue to offer narratives in which the protagonists, our stand-ins,
wind up Marooned (1969), Lost in Space (1998), adrift in suspended an-
imation like the character Ripley in several of the Alien films; and yet
it is also an image they have offered up as a subtle warning.
The science fiction film, as a genre constantly in the process of re-
defining itself, has to negotiate between these two potentials: its capac-
ity for limitless vision and experience, on the one hand, and the pos-
sibility for helping to foster such distance and alienation, on the other.
That it has become so very popular in the last few decades, after some-
thing of a falling off in the 1960s and 1970s, argues powerfully for its
ability not only to harness the technological power that drives it, but
also to address the technological attitude that haunts it – in effect, to
use the former as a way of dealing with the latter. In this regard, we
might note what seems an increased emphasis on mediation and the
technology of reproduction – in effect, an imagery of film itself – in our
recent science fiction movies. Certainly, the dominant image of the sci-
ence fiction film throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s has been
that of the replicated human, the image of ourselves caught up in a
world of technological reproduction, one whose very limitless capacity
for mimesis promises to deliver all things to us, while also threatening
to deliver us to a kind of thing-ness, to reduce us to near irrelevance –
indistinguishable from our many copies or clones. Films like Event Ho-
rizon, Dark City, and Sphere (1998) extend that concern beyond the
human, exploring the possibilities of reproducing and constantly ma-
nipulating our entire environment, in effect, writing us into ever new
scenarios; yet here too the genre might be seen as fulfilling, in its own
way, the driving force of all fantasy, a term that, Rosemary Jackson re-
minds, literally means “that which is made visible.”34 From this van-
tage, the science fiction film seems a form that continues to explore
the potential for rendering our world in all its promise and frustration
ever more available for our inspection and instruction.

Genre Thinking
Perhaps this introduction seems to offer its own paradox: a discussion
of the science fiction genre that argues simultaneously for the difficulty

of establishing hard and fast generic boundaries and the necessity for
recognizing certain constitutive elements – not only the sort of seman-
tic and syntactic elements that Altman describes, but also specific
themes that are imbedded in that structure and the genre’s technolog-
ical underpinnings, and that give rise to its science fiction character.
Usually, our discussions of film genres proceed from one or the other
of these perspectives. Introductions to formula narratives typically em-
phasize a broadly characteristic iconography before turning to discus-
sions of how those various icons shift in meaning or value from one era
to another. More specialized treatments of particular genres have often
moved in the other direction, isolating the structures and images that
produce meaning, as Will Wright did in his structural study of the west-
ern film,35 or focusing on a specific thematics, as Sontag did when she
saw in the history of science fiction cinema a unique fascination with
cultural disaster, and one particularly revealing about the American
scene. By overlaying these vantages, I hope to suggest a way of think-
ing about film genres, and especially the science fiction film, that em-
braces the sort of dynamic tension by which they ultimately work.
To help us to gain this vantage, we shall take the notion of fantasy
– particularly as it has been explored by Todorov and amplified, in or-
der to account for its cultural content, by Rosemary Jackson – as a
guiding framework. Fantasy is, as we have noted, a form that demon-
strates the difficulties of generic demarcation, one whose boundaries
can at best be thought of as a series of what Todorov terms “relay
points” with other formulas. It is also a form that can easily be seen as
encompassing a variety of film types that, as our criticism has repeat-
edly attested, frequently seem to overlap or share characteristics –
specifically, science fiction, horror, and even the musical. Nevertheless,
fantasy does seem to function according to a particular structure, its
fundamental sense of “hesitation” that is articulated in its marvelous,
fantastic, and uncanny variations, each of which offers some intriguing
correspondences to the major recurring types of science fiction narra-
tive. Those fantasy correspondences, in turn, can also help us better
understand how science fiction articulates its central themes.
Of course, as we have noted, the science fiction film is finally more
than an element in some supertext, more too than a series of semantic
and syntactic devices, calculated to produce a certain meaning. It is,
for all of its often rather cold and technological context, a very seduc-
tive form, one that we might well see as the deep unconscious of pop-
ular cinema. Its ability to reproduce what might be, to synthesize a new
32 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

reality, is a powerful lure, one closely allied to the attraction bound

up in the very technology that makes it possible. At the same time, its
ability to lay bare those attractions, to hold up that reason–science–
technology triad for our inspection, to trace “the unsaid and the un-
seen of culture,” particularly of a technological culture like modern
America, represents a potent and, given the power of all technological
culture, even a needed payoff. The following chapters, then, sketch out
some of both the genre’s seductions and its subversions, to make the
workings of this powerful popular genre a bit more visible and thus
open to discussion and understanding.
Science Fiction Film
The Critical Context

lthough science fiction literature, even in its early years, was of-
ten taken fairly seriously and rapidly built up a volume of sig-
nificant critical material, the science fiction film has taken much
longer to find a similar degree of critical acceptance and to develop its
own body of commentary. Writing in 1972, for example, William John-
son felt it necessary to introduce his critical anthology Focus on the
Science Fiction Film by acknowledging that the sort of attention he and
his fellow contributors were according to the genre “is still not fully
respectable,” in large part because too many of the films, with their
frequent emphasis on bug-eyed monsters (or BEMs) and spectacular,
science-induced calamities, seemed to occupy what he termed a “more
dubious position” in the world of cinema.1 That position has changed
radically since his book, with the science fiction genre producing a
number of the highest-grossing films of all time – among them, Star
Wars (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Star Wars: Episode I –
The Phantom Menace (1999) – as well as a variety of critically acclaimed
works, including Blade Runner (1982), RoboCop (1987), and Terminator
2: Judgment Day (1991). As a result, science fiction film criticism has
moved far afield from its early fanzine-type commentary, such as was
found in a magazine like Famous Monsters of Filmland, and large-format
picture-book histories, to include articles in the leading literary and
film-related journals, as well as university-press-sponsored studies of
individual films, filmmakers, and specific themes of science fiction cin-
While the present chapter does not pretend to offer a full survey of
the history of this developing science fiction film criticism, it does sum-
marize the main currents of thought on the genre and offer detailed
commentaries on some studies. To facilitate that summary, I have or-
ganized the commentary around a variety of critical practices that
have generally dominated discussion of the genre. Particularly, this
overview emphasizes humanist, ideological, feminist, psychoanalytic,

❖ 33
34 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

and postmodern critical vantages as the key – although by no means

the only – approaches to the genre. It briefly summarizes these ap-
proaches, and then illustrates them through specific consideration of
a number of books and articles that have fundamentally influenced
discussion of the genre or that well represent the main trends that dis-
cussion has followed. My aim is neither to offer a history of science fic-
tion film criticism nor to advocate any one critical vantage as particu-
larly appropriate to discussing this form, but to suggest how the genre
has been profitably opened up through a great variety of investigative
approaches – so much so in recent years that the science fiction film
increasingly seems to be an intriguing point of convergence, a kind of
testing ground for much of our contemporary cultural and film theory.
At the outset, though, we should understand that all of the critical
approaches surveyed in this chapter essentially constitute tactics for
asking questions about cinematic texts, and more specifically about
our science fiction films. Increasingly, those films seem to mark off spe-
cific areas for certain questions that are particularly important to con-
temporary technoculture: through robotic images, questions about the
nature of the self; through apocalyptic scenarios, about the fragility of
human existence; through virtual-reality systems, about the construc-
tion of culture; through genetic explorations, about the nature of gen-
der. Certainly, each of the critical methods discussed here approaches
film with an agenda and typically seeks answers along a very specific
and limited trajectory. The goal in each instance is to open the text up
as a point of knowledge, as a path to better understanding what we
might conceive of as three broad fields of inquiry: first, the text itself
and, by implication, all similar texts; second, the producers and receiv-
ers of the text, that is, those involved in creating this industrial artifact,
as well as the audience that is asked to see or consume it in a certain
manner; and third, the world that has in a variety of nearly invisible
ways generated this text, that is, the culture that invariably inflects all
of its constructs and leaves the imprint of those class, gender, ethnic,
political, and other tensions that inform the many elements of that cul-
ture. Just as these fields of inquiry often overlap, so do the questions
we ask often imply, even demand, others. Thus, understanding a film
like E.T.’s depiction of the alien, for instance, might push us to consid-
er, among other things, director Steven Spielberg’s efforts to work with-
in the Hollywood studio system and its tradition of classical narrative,
as well as to understand the American middle-class life-style as it was
idealized or nostalgically conceived in the Reagan era. In any case, the
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 35

key point we might underscore is the very partialness of all these ques-
tions, and thus how the various critical approaches surveyed here all
provide what we might best think of as a complementary knowledge
about the American science fiction film.

Science Fiction and Humanism

What we might broadly describe as a humanist tradition has long dom-
inated discussion of science fiction cinema, much as it has other pop-
ular American genres. While the humanist approach generally applies
no one specific methodology to its study of film, it does in all of its va-
riety usually involve an underlying strategy or direction for its ques-
tions. As Tim Bywater and Thomas Sobchack explain, humanist criti-
cism “seeks to understand human nature and humankind’s place in the
scheme of things, asking the traditional questions – who we are and
what is life all about,” and it typically does so by looking “for represen-
tations in film of general human values, the truths of human experience
as they relate to the common and universal aspects of existence.”2 In
most cases, this humanist criticism has followed historical and themat-
ic paths, and among its most significant contributors we might note
John Baxter, who authored an early history of the genre; William John-
son, who compiled a key collection of responses to the science fiction
film in the 1970s; and especially Susan Sontag, author of what remains
one of the most influential and oft-cited articles on science fiction, “The
Imagination of Disaster.” Together, these figures suggest a range of re-
sponses that have continued to inform much of our thinking about the
genre, even as more sophisticated critical approaches have come to
dominate contemporary science fiction film commentary.
As has often been the case in critical discussion of literature, the
humanist approach to film most frequently proceeds along historical
lines, as it tries to place the works of a genre within a broad context
that allows us to appreciate and understand better its ongoing changes
and developments – developments that, the criticism implies, mirror
our own ongoing efforts at understanding human nature and reflecting
on our social values. Among a number of important historical treat-
ments of the genre, we might especially note Baxter’s Science Fiction
in the Cinema (1970), which has proven an essential source for most
critics of the genre. More recent historical accounts of the genre in-
clude Vivian Sobchack’s Screening Space: The American Science Fiction
Film and my own Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction
36 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

Film. Since the former, in its revisions for a later edition, has effectively
reframed its reading of the American science fiction film within an ide-
ological context, we shall consider it under that category. The latter
work examines the form primarily from a postmodern vantage, using
the image of the robot as a trope for the genre’s abiding concern with
artifice, with the various ways in which our science and technology
have allowed us to shape and reshape reality itself, in the process call-
ing into question our convention-bound sense of the real, as well as
film’s own manipulations of that reality. Though these works overlap
in a number of instances, as we might expect of any group of historical
treatments, they also nicely complement one another and, when taken
together, offer students a sound historical grounding for subsequent
exploration of the genre.
Although eclectic in his selection of film texts, Baxter has provided
one of the most useful surveys of the genre, as he ranges in great detail
from the earliest days of the cinema to 1970. He focuses on various
national developments of the science fiction impulse in tracing out
what he sees as the form’s primary focus on “movements and ideas,”
and particularly two themes that he finds interwoven throughout the
genre’s history: “the loss of individuality and the threat of knowledge.”3
Yet while he pointedly sets about “tracing . . . antecedents” and not-
ing influences, describing a line of thematic and stylistic development
in both literary and cinematic science fiction, and even as he ranges
over a variety of national cinemas, Baxter acknowledges that the form
seems to resemble “a diffuse and ill-defined plain, a landscape with fig-
ures which changes as one moves, assumes new shapes depending on
viewpoint and perspective.”4 It is a conclusion that effectively suggests
not only the sort of generic difficulty that, as we noted in the opening
chapter, particularly marks most commentaries on the science fiction
film, but also the very limits of this sort of diffuse historical view, di-
vorced as it often is from a specific methodology for approaching the
While retaining an element of that historical focus, both Denis Gif-
ford’s Science Fiction Film and Johnson’s Focus on the Science Fiction
Film take a more synchronic approach, as they emphasize as well the
great variety of themes that surface in the genre. Despite a clear nod
in the direction of historical context (as Gifford notes, his book was
written “as the Space Age opens and yesterday’s science-fiction film
becomes today’s documentary”),5 Science Fiction Film generally ig-
nores cultural parallels and collapses its sketchy historical vantage
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 37

Figure 15. Early critical attention focuses on “classic” works, such as the H. G.
Wells–scripted Things to Come (1936).

into a brief account of the various sorts of “inventions,” “explorations,”

and “predictions” that have surfaced in all periods of science fiction
film. Offering a far more balanced and valuable overview of the genre
than Gifford’s work, Johnson’s Focus on the Science Fiction Film pro-
vides a slight historical framework for its grouping of articles on a va-
riety of filmmakers that have traditionally been associated with the
genre (Georges Méliès, Fritz Lang, Don Siegel, Stanley Kubrick); on a
few “classics” of the form, such as Things to Come (1936) [Fig. 15], Desti-
nation Moon (1950), and The Time Machine (1960); and on wide-ranging
assessments of the science fiction film by an international array of
critics, including Ado Kyrou, Guy Gauthier, and Harry M. Geduld. John-
son’s inclusion of a few primary materials, such as script extracts,
comments by writers and cinematographers, and contemporaneous
reviews, as well as his provision of a detailed filmography and bibliog-
raphy, offers us some glimpse of the broader context in which, ideally,
38 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

Figure 16. A modern “classic” dominates humanist conceptions of the genre:

The Stanley Kubrick–Arthur C. Clarke film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

we might situate the genre and establishes a standard that no sub-

sequent collection has yet matched. Though now dated, this volume
continues to be a very useful resource and one that well sketches the
humanist vantage on the science fiction film, perhaps best summed
up in Geduld’s contribution. There he argues that the science fiction
movie “at its best has, traditionally, been humanist. Humanist, that is,
insofar as it has usually assumed the primacy of man and his values,
and insofar as it has expressed confidence and conviction concerning
man’s ability and need to survive any confrontation with the forces of
a hostile or inscrutable universe, or the threats posed by technological
and scientific advancement”6 [Fig. 16].

Susan Sontag
Following this imperative while also pointing in the direction of a more
ideologically conscious criticism is probably the single best essay in
this vein, and indeed one of the most important contributions to the
study of science fiction film: Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disas-
ter.” Responding to an emphasis in modern criticism on the process of
“interpretation” – that is, on making art “manageable, conformable” by
focusing solely on the meaning of its content – Sontag championed an
approach that would pay more attention to artistic form and recover
its “effects,” such as those found in the “pure, untranslatable, sensuous
immediacy” of film’s imagery.7 In the popular genre film, especially the
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 39

Figure 17. Sontag’s “Imagination of Disaster” takes shape in the giant mutant
ants of Them! (1954).

cinema of science fiction, Sontag felt she had found a sort of art that
had managed “to elude the interpreters” by its ability to “be . . . just
what it is.”8 This, she suggested, was because most critics simply had
little interest in or patience with the seemingly “primitive gratifica-
tions” the genre offered.9
Observing the spate of apocalyptic stories that dominated screens
throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with their narratives of alien inva-
sions and technology run amok [Fig. 17], she sought to understand the
sort of pleasures they offered, and in the process situated the genre
in a significant cultural context. “The Imagination of Disaster,” in fact,
argues that the science fiction film is fundamentally “about disaster,
which is one of the oldest subjects of art,” and that this fascination
helps explain much of the “satisfaction” audiences derive from the
form, particularly the dual lures of “sensuous elaboration” and “ex-
treme moral simplification.”10 While Sontag links the genre’s popularity
to the attitudes and anxieties of American culture in the early cold-war
40 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

era, she also draws from it a larger conclusion about how such genre
films function culturally; for she finds the genre’s articulation of cul-
tural anxieties strangely removed from any sort of “social criticism,
of even the most implicit kind.”11 While our films both “reflect world-
wide anxieties and . . . serve to allay them,” they also, she suggests, “in-
culcate a strange apathy” about such troubling issues as radiation, con-
tamination, and universal destruction that seems almost “in complicity
with the abhorrent,”12 that is, with the tremendously destructive po-
tentials of modern culture. By focusing in a rather traditional humanist
manner on this one particular motif in the science fiction film, its re-
peated imagery of disaster, Sontag arrives at a larger caution about the
workings of the genre, a symptom of what she evocatively terms its “in-
adequate response” to contemporary concerns, as she also points the
way to a more pointedly ideological consideration of the form, to what
she sees as the proper aim of all commentary on art: “to make works
of art – and by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less,
real to us.”13

Ideological Criticism
Following Sontag’s lead, as well as the broad political turn of much film
criticism beginning in the early 1970s, science fiction commentary has
recently been dominated by a variety of more direct and systematic
ideological reassessments. Such examinations typically focus on what
Terry Eagleton has described as “the largely concealed structure of val-
ues which informs and underlies our factual statements,” particularly
as those statements connect “with the power-structure and power-
relations of the society we live in” and often seem designed to reinforce
that status quo.14 Drawing primarily on the paradigmatic work of Louis
Althusser and Fredric Jameson, figures such as Vivian Sobchack, Mi-
chael Stern, Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, and Judith Hess Wright
have in various ways sought to lay bare the extent to which this genre
provides audiences with images that inure them to the contradictions
and everyday repressions of their culture, particularly those images
that directly evoke contemporary technoculture. While retaining a
heavily formalist approach in trying to account for the sorts of image
that are specific to the genre, Sobchack in her history of the American
science fiction film anchors that discussion in a thoroughly ideological
context; as she explains, the basic assumption behind her history is
that “the SF film is always historicized, grounded in its (and our) own
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 41

earthly American culture – in the economic, technological, political,

social, and linguistic present of its production, in the ideological struc-
tures that shape its visual and visible conceptions of time, space, af-
fect, and social relations.”15
Sobchack and others have thus usually sought to map that ground
by analyzing how the key icons of science and technology, along with
the attitudes toward those icons that the films demonstrate, suggest
both the play of power within culture and the constructed rather than
natural conditions of life in modern, technological cultures. In so do-
ing, they hope to reveal the political dimensions of a subject that has,
through the powers of generic convention and formula that Sontag de-
scribed, come to seem almost magically outside that domain – as whol-
ly natural rather than culturally constructed.
In examining the genre’s reliance on or even “enthusiasm” for spe-
cial effects, Michael Stern starkly models this approach. He sees sci-
ence fiction’s emphasis on special effects as a model of the way that
“advanced capitalist societies” create “a world of appearances,” a
world that “forestalls thinking . . . in ways that are outside authorized
categories of reflection” about our culture.16 A more detailed and par-
ticularly effective example of this methodology shows up in Ryan and
Kellner’s discussion of the “conservative fear of technology” that sur-
faced powerfully in science fiction films of the 1970s and 1980s [Fig. 18].
In these works, they suggest, technology becomes a distinctly trou-
bling issue because it metaphorically recalls the “constructed institu-
tion” that is society itself.17 Seen from this vantage, the genre’s techno-
logical imagery comes to stand metonymically for the technologies of
cultural coercion – the various mechanisms of manipulation, observa-
tion, and reinforcement to which we are all subject – as it foregrounds
the shaping powers of the social world we inhabit. They argue, further,
that the critical attitude toward the technological reflected in those
narratives points not only to a deep-seated distrust of technology and
the sort of culture it has helped construct, but also to “a possibility of
reconstruction that would put the stability of conservative social insti-
tutions in question,”18 that might, for example, subvert capitalist and
patriarchal traditions in American culture. Thus they see a film like Lo-
gan’s Run (1976) [Fig. 19], a dystopian story of rebellion against a fu-
turistic, technologically sustained city-state, as superficially indicting
the military–industrial complex of modern America. When the protag-
onist Logan heralds his escape from the city into a surrounding, un-
tamed nature with the remark, “We’re free,” his comment seems to sug-
42 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

Figure 18. Technophobia given reason in Demon Seed (1977), as computer-

controlled mechanisms attack humans.

gest “the rejection of everything technology represents.”19 Yet, since

that rejection is linked to a turning against the futuristic world of so-
cial equality and collective action, they view Logan’s triumphal escape
as a fundamentally conservative turn, affirming rather than subverting
the individualistic status quo that undergirds American culture, while
linking technology to all that might threaten that status quo. This sort
of application essentially reads through the usual ideological construc-
tion of cultural texts, deconstructing its order to reveal the dissatis-
factions and unresolved tensions that the genre narrative, for all of
its comforting resolutions, never quite manages to erase or convert
into an affirmative dynamic. Rather, it suggests that in the tensions ex-
pressed therein we are observing a deep-rooted subversive power at
work within our science fiction films.
Other, less nuanced uses of the ideological method, in privileging
how our film genres help to construct cultural attitudes, read totally
against the grain of genre, against a specific formula’s function in mir-
roring and addressing our most pressing cultural concerns. Instead,
they would see it simply as a potent manipulative device – much like
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 43

Figure 19. The social vision of the science fiction film, here embodied in the
technologically sustained city-state of Logan’s Run (1976).

the powerful technology on which science fiction itself typically fo-

cuses. From this view the genre’s narrative power, as well as its critical
interest, derives not from the expressive capacity on which Sontag fo-
cused but solely from the powerful hegemonic force it represents, from
its capacity – and seemingly inevitable mission – to reinforce the status
quo. Judith Hess Wright typifies this approach, as she argues that genre
films in general aim only to “produce satisfaction rather than action,”
and that science fiction films in particular “build on fears of the intru-
sive and the overpowering and thereby promote isolationism. They
also imply that science is good only inasmuch as it serves to support
the existing class structure.”20 In her discussion of such films as The
Thing from Another World (1951) [Fig. 20], Invasion of the Body Snatch-
ers (1956), and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) she thus sees only a
simplification of cold-war tensions. Hence the aliens in these respec-
tive narratives stand in for communist hordes, and the scientists with
their technology become our only hope at staving off invasion and
maintaining our way of life. However, while this sort of approach has
helped us rethink the privileged status that the genre so often seems
44 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

Figure 20. The military tries to keep The Thing from Another World (1951) be-
hind a locked door, as science fiction simplifies cold-war tensions.

to accord science and technology, the various ways these elements

both endorse and empower existing social structures, and the strong
kinship between the film industry and the stories it tells, it also tends
to omit much from the equation, and ultimately to avoid the complex-
ity of many science fiction narratives. Particularly, Wright’s reading of
such works as The Thing . . . and Invasion of the Body Snatchers essen-
tially overlooks the former’s complex sexual dynamics and advocacy
of collective action, and the latter’s examination of a culturally deter-
mined identity, in favor of a superficial political generalization. At the
same time, it leaves unanswered the question of whether any cultural
work can escape the shaping and conforming forces that have brought
it into being, and thus whether any cultural text has the power to chal-
lenge existing social and political structures.
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 45

Psychoanalytic Criticism
Closely related to this ideological project in method if not in purpose
is the psychoanalytic body of science fiction criticism. Relying for the
most part on the work of Freud and Jacques Lacan, it typically tries to
draw in and on the human dimension that the ideological approach too
often dismisses from consideration, as it assumes that, as Tim Bywater
and Thomas Sobchack offer, “a large part of the mechanisms of life lie
hidden from direct observation, that there is an unconscious element
behind every conscious action.”21 Critics such as Margaret Tarratt,
Constance Penley, and Vivian Sobchack have thus sought to locate in
the alluring imagery of the science fiction film far more than just the
reflections of our cultural fears or anxieties, weakly allayed; rather,
they find in those figures a gallery of personal and social repressions
that speak to the power of the cultural machine that is the movie indus-
try. For a representation of a rather traditional Freudian vantage that
has produced a number of significant readings of science fiction films,
we might consider Tarratt’s oft-cited commentary on such key texts as
The Thing . . . , It Came from Outer Space (1953), and Forbidden Planet
(1956) [Fig. 21]. In the recurrent “battles with sinister monsters or
extraterrestrial forces” chronicled in these and many other entries in
the genre, she recognizes “an externalization of the civilized person’s
conflict with his or her primitive subconscious or id.”22 Specifically,
she argues that these films’ key iconography – the genre’s rockets and
spaceships, alien others, and dangerous or out-of-control technology
– is emblematic of an unbridled, aggressive, and typically male sexual-
ity, one whose “taming . . . civilized society demands.”23 While acknowl-
edging a broadly social dimension to the genre, then, Tarratt suggests
that our science fiction films only “arrive at social comment” by work-
ing through this more fundamental “dramatization of the individual’s
anxiety about his or her own repressed sexual desires, which are in-
compatible with the morals of civilized life.”24 Of course, that interpre-
tation would seem to offer little explanatory power for the genre as a
whole, since the same argument might easily be made about the horror
film, the western, or the gangster film, particularly with their repeated
displays of phallic weaponry, often unleashed on passive victims. Nev-
ertheless, what this vantage has provided is a paradigm that has begun
to bring into simultaneous focus both the individual and social dimen-
sions of the genre, as well as one that might help viewers to address
the extent to which the genre reflects, rather than constructs, our per-
sonal concerns.
46 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

More recent psychological assessments have advanced this simple

model by taking their primary lead from the work of Lacan, a reinter-
preter of Freud who has suggested that the unconscious is structured
like a language and, as a consequence, that it operates upon the indi-
vidual subject in much the way a language does,25 structuring the self
in accord with the dominant culture’s signifying practices. In the case
of film criticism, this psychological method asks, as Bywater and Sob-
chack offer, that we see the motion picture itself as just such “an imag-
inary construct that caters to the desires and needs implanted in the
individual by the original psychic structuring of the self by language/
culture.”26 Particularly influential work in this vein has come from such
critics as Constance Penley and Vivian Sobchack. In her discussion of
time travel in science fiction, Penley draws out the similarities between
this narrative type and what psychologists term “primal scene fanta-
sy,” finding in that likeness a key to the appeal of this subgenre. The
desire fundamentally suggested by the time travel story, she suggests,
is that “of both witnessing one’s own conception and being one’s own
mother and father,”27 that is, of revisiting and potentially influencing
the conception and construction of self, as we see acted out most
overtly in Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels. While Penley de-
rives this reading from her sense that recent science fiction films have
offered “some of the most effective instances of eroticism” in the mov-
ies,28 Sobchack, surveying the genre’s broader outlines and drawing on
her earlier ideological study of its history, focuses on the rather re-
markable absence of sexual concerns from most of our science fiction
films. From this vantage she sets out to show “how human sexuality
and women return to the science fiction narrative in displaced and
condensed forms, in an emotionally charged imagery and syntax that
bears relation to the cryptic but coherent language of dream.”29 By
their overt linking of “biology and sexuality to women and technolo-
gy to men,” she argues, our science fiction “dreams” repeatedly play
out scenarios of “infantile experience while pretending to adult con-
cerns.”30 What this sort of reading offers is an intriguing suggestion not
only of what lies repressed within the science fiction narrative, but also
of how those repressions might even be construed as making the genre
possible by helping to generate one of its key dynamics.
Less popular today, though still offering a potentially powerful tool
for exploring that psychic empowerment of genre, is the archetypal ap-
proach grounded in Jungian psychology [Fig. 22]. Drawing on the no-
tion that the psyche is an extension of a collective unconscious, and
thus that certain images and actions (which we might think of in terms
Figure 21. Poster for Forbidden Planet (1956) depicts technology – the robot –
as a projection of the primitive and threatening subconscious.

Figure 22. Science fiction imagery opens onto archetypal readings, here with
the robot of The Invisible Boy (1957) as savior and protector.
❖ 47
48 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

of the semantic and syntactic dimensions of genre narrative) reflect

a variety of universal values and meanings, the Jungian analytic treats
film as a primary myth and thus a key reflection of cultural identity. The
most important study of the genre from this vantage is Patrick Luca-
nio’s Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion
Films. In this work Lucanio argues for a deeper understanding of one
of the most obvious cultural phenomena of the science fiction genre –
that is, the enormous body of alien-invasion films that appeared in the
early cold-war era and seemed quite simply to express Americans’
widespread fears of attack, invasion, and destruction by communist
hordes. Instead of seeing these works in the context of “Freudian dog-
ma concerning the depiction of our repressed fears” or from a simple
ideological vantage, one affirming the correctness of our fears of the
“other,” he views them as “symbols of transformation, directing us to-
ward an individuated life,” through their patterns of “iconographic im-
ages” which bear a “dynamic relationship to primordial images in the
collective (also called transpersonal) unconscious.”31 Reading through
these archetypal images, then, Lucanio uncovers a broad cultural and
indeed human message embodied in such alien-invasion films as The
Thing . . . , Invaders from Mars (1953), War of the Worlds (1953), and
Earth vs. The Flying Saucers – “a massive symbol of life’s own destiny,”32
that is, of our precarious place in the universe, as well as of our poten-
tial for overcoming the perils it holds in store.
Lucanio’s reading of William Cameron Menzies’s Invaders from Mars
well illustrates his approach. In its story of Martian invaders come to
enslave humanity, he finds a tale of the Jungian individuation process,
that is, an initiation into the demands of the human environment, com-
bined with the gaining of a deep self-knowledge. Awakened by a thun-
derstorm, twelve-year-old David McLean sleepily observes a UFO land-
ing in a sand pit just beyond his home and tries to convince his parents
of what he has seen. Told that he has simply been dreaming, David is
left to wonder if he can trust his eyes – or any of his senses, for after
his father investigates the area and returns home, he seems a changed
person, a pattern that repeats itself as all who go out to the sand pit
return markedly different. To counter his own self-doubts, as well as
what we recognize as a gradual takeover of the area’s inhabitants,
David enlists the help of a local scientist, Professor Kelston (described
by Lucanio as a figure of the self); a doctor, Pat Blake (the feminine
anima figure); and an army officer, Colonel Fielding (the wise old man
archetype). As these three help David reveal and eventually overcome
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 49

the Martians, Lucanio suggests, we see how the self “draws to itself all
the other archetypes and binds them into a harmonious whole.”33 In
effect, the film thus dramatizes the difficult process of individuation
wherein we learn to live in a complex world by drawing together, in
the process of maturation, the various elements of the self. This sort
of reading, in part because it represents a challenge to the Freudian/
Lacanian methodology that has dominated recent psychological crit-
icism and in part because it only indirectly addresses the social and
economic context of our film narratives, has of late found little support
in the critical establishment, Nonetheless, this approach remains at-
tractive for the way it manages to explain the compelling and appar-
ently mythic power of film, as well as the cross-cultural and seemingly
near-universal appeal of the American science fiction film.

Often overlapping with both the ideological and psychoanalytic per-
spectives, and thus drawing on that same combinatory power of cul-
tural and individual focus they offer, are those feminist voices that have
sought to suggest how we might read what invariably seems, thanks
largely to the nature of the iconography that Tarratt, Lucanio, and oth-
ers have foregrounded, the dominant masculine text of science fiction.
Given the genre’s fundamental concern with science and technology,
with the sort of controlling concepts and technologies that feminist
criticism has usually linked to the dominating structures of a patriar-
chal culture – and often taking the distinctly phallic shape of rocket
ships, ray guns, tunneling devices, and light sabers – science fiction
cinema has provided a fertile ground for exploring a genre dynamic in
which, most often, men do while women watch appreciatively. Although
that dynamic has undergone some radical revision in the past two dec-
ades, thanks to films like Aliens (1986), Eve of Destruction (1991), Cher-
ry 2000 (1987), and Terminator 2, all of which have pointedly situated
women in positions of technological mastery – as wielders of hard-
ware, as creators (technological mothers) of key programs, as the
order givers in a technical culture – the full range of contemporary sci-
ence fiction films have become texts for reconsidering the larger, mas-
culinist emphasis of the genre and for suggesting how other genres
might similarly be read and even reconceived along feminist lines.
Probably the most influential figure in this approach to the science
fiction film, even though she has never really turned her focus to ex-
50 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

plicating the genre, is Donna Haraway. Concerned with the larger cul-
tural and technological context in which our science fiction films op-
erate – in fact, working from the perspective that contemporary culture
has become very much like science fiction and that science fiction, in
turn, has become a primary expression of this cultural moment – Har-
away has made what she terms a “science fictional move” in her cultur-
al commentary that critics of the genre have quickly followed.34 She
has appropriated a key icon of the contemporary science fiction film,
the cyborg or artificial being, as a trope for investigating feminine iden-
tity in the postmodern cultural environment, particularly using it to de-
scribe the “odd techno-organic, humanoid hybrids” that, she argues,
women have become in the contemporary environment – that is, the
new sort of “nature” they have discovered as they try to understand
and resist their construction by a male technoculture.35
Drawing on Haraway’s formulation and extending it specifically to
the study of science fiction texts, both literary and cinematic, Mary
Ann Doane explains how “science fiction, a genre specific to the era of
rapid technological development, frequently envisages a new, revised
body as a direct outcome of the advance of science. And when technol-
ogy intersects with the body in the realm of representation, the ques-
tion of sexual difference is inevitably involved.”36 Working from that
primary focus on sexual difference, Doane discerns throughout the
genre a fascination with key feminist concerns, “with the issues of the
maternal, reproduction, representation, and history”;37 and in our sci-
ence fiction films’ depiction of the “revised body” – the robot, cyborg,
prosthetically altered human – she reads a primary story of cultural
repression, a chronicling of the dominant culture’s efforts “to control,
supervise, regulate the maternal – to put limits upon it.”38 A primary
example of such depiction is The Stepford Wives (1975) [Fig. 23], which
focuses on a small town in which the various wives are gradually and
secretly being replaced by robotic women, all of them dressed very
much alike and seemingly devoted to traditional domestic duties. Har-
away and Doane would read such a film, as well as the many involving
female simulacra that have followed in its wake, not only as an indict-
ment of the stultifying roles a patriarchal culture has traditionally af-
forded women, but also as a revealing vantage on the ways female rep-
resentation has been determined by the male (through the mode of
dress adopted by/for the robot wives), on the appropriation of female
reproductive capacity through male domination of technology (the
creation of mechanical wives), and on the erasure of feminine history
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 51

Figure 23. The Stepford Wives (1975) illustrates a widespread concern with cul-
tural repression of the feminine.

(as individual backgrounds become irrelevant when the women are re-
placed by their technological others). Such interpretations dovetail in
a number of respects with Vivian Sobchack’s psychological and ideo-
logical commentaries on the form, and thus suggest how several of
these approaches have converged as they draw on the technological
to raise questions about the troubled nature of gender dynamics with-
in contemporary culture.
Following the lead of both Haraway and Doane in their focus on the
cultural context of science fiction are critics such as Barbara Creed and
Claudia Springer. While the former reads the genre primarily as one
more especially revealing site of feminine representation – and misrep-
resentation – the latter more specifically explores the characteristics
of the form, particularly its emphasis on technology and the body.
Drawing together Freud’s comments on the primal scene and Doane’s
view of the maternal as a primary site of cultural contention, Creed ar-
gues that one of “the major concerns of the science fiction horror film
(Alien, The Thing . . . , Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Altered States
52 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

[1980]) is the reworking of the primal scene” in relation to their recur-

rent images of the mother.39 In her examination of Alien, she discerns
a number of such primal scenes, most of them associated with a hor-
rific, monstrous version of the mother, and thus with the cultural threat
posed by the powerful female; these include the alien ship filled with
about-to-hatch eggs [Fig. 24], the infamous “chest-buster” scene in
which an incubated alien bursts from a human’s chest, the captain’s
deadly encounter with the alien as he crawls through his ship’s womb-
like air ducts, and others. In the final defeat and expulsion of this mon-
strous mother by the female officer Ripley, whose body is presented
as “pleasurable and reassuring to look at,” Creed sees a reassertion
of the “acceptable,” nonthreatening mother figure, a successful effort
“to repress the nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine within the
text’s patriarchal discourses.”40 Extrapolating from this analysis, she
suggests that if we extend this examination to the various forms of the
maternal that recur throughout our science fiction films, we might dis-
cover “a new way of understanding how patriarchal ideology works to
deny the ‘difference’ of woman in her cinematic representation.”41
A specific application of this notion of difference drives Springer’s
more ambitious volume Electronic Eros, as it ranges across a variety of
cultural texts to explore the relationship between technology and de-
sire, and particularly woman’s place in that relationship. Throughout
contemporary technoculture, Springer suggests, we find that our rep-
resentations of technology have repeatedly been employed “to express
ideas about sexual identity and gender roles.”42 While such expression
is hardly new, she argues that it has become far more conflicted in con-
temporary films, as we find major “changes in techno-erotic imagery
in some popular-culture texts,” particularly as that imagery relates to
feminine representation, whereas other texts simply “recycle” imagery
and ideas from Western culture’s industrial past.43 Focusing specifi-
cally on recent fictional representations of cyborgs (“cybernetic organ-
isms – which are part human and part machine”)44 in such films as The
Terminator (1984), RoboCop, Eve of Destruction, and The Lawnmower
Man (1992), as well as in the television series Mann and Machine (1992),
she reiterates Haraway’s point that the discourse of popular culture
“plays out contemporary cultural conflicts over sexuality and gender
roles in its representation of cyborgs,” and argues more specifically
that by looking carefully at such representations we can see how, cul-
turally, we still largely “cling to nineteenth-century notions about tech-
nology, sexual difference, and gender roles in order to resist the trans-
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 53

Figure 24. Alien (1979) translates the primal scene of birth into a technolog-
ical context.

formations brought about by the new postmodern social order.”45 Thus

a film like Eve of Destruction describes how a cyborg, modeled on a fe-
male scientist and incorporating her personality, becomes unstable,
even dangerous, as it begins acting out the heretofore repressed de-
sires of its original. Consequently, this explosive new woman (literal-
ly explosive, as she carries an atomic bomb in her body) must be de-
stroyed before she wreaks havoc in society. In the work of these and
other feminist critics we find valuable insights into the cultural con-
struction of gender [Fig. 25], the positioning of the subject in terms of
patriarchal narratives, and even the possibilities of constructing a non-
patriarchal science fiction text. Equally important, however, is the way
in which they speak to the cultural moment, reminding us of how on-
going debates about the construction of gender in our culture have
found significant and powerful new icons within a territory, that of the
science fiction film, which many would tend to see – on the one hand,
thanks to its fantastic reaches, and on the other, thanks to its ground-
54 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

Figure 25. A Clockwork Orange (1972) suggests the cultural construction of

gender roles in the trappings of its futuristic nightclub.

ing in the supposedly factual realm of science and technology – as rel-

atively free from such troubling concerns.46

Finally, we should consider what has become probably the dominant
vantage on the science fiction film, that afforded by what we generally
term postmodernism, as exemplified in the work of such critics as Scott
Bukatman and Guiliana Bruno. Like the humanist approach, postmod-
ern criticism is less a particular methodology than a broad strategy,
drawing on the characteristics of the age. At its base, as the philoso-
pher Jean-François Lyotard explains, postmodernism involves an “in-
credulity toward metanarratives,”47 that is, a skepticism toward and
subsequent interrogation of all those narratives or structures that we
employ to legitimate the knowledge on which contemporary techno-
culture relies. It therefore argues that our contemporary ways of see-
ing, knowing, and representing all rest on what are usually unques-
tioned – and perhaps even insupportable – assumptions, and that the
very notion of the real is ultimately little more than an “effect,” a con-
struct of language, custom, and assumption. The science fiction film
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 55

Figure 26. The problems of postmodern identity, of the human bound to tech-
nology, are at the core of Total Recall (1990).

seems to have proven particularly open to this sort of postmodern in-

vestigation in part because of its focus on technology and thus on the
very methods we employ in constructing and shaping our world [Fig.
26], but also in great part, I would suggest, because of its fantastic char-
56 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

acter, one that, as Rosemary Jackson reminds, inevitably runs counter

to and subverts our sense of the real.
While that postmodern sensibility has been applied to the study of
the science fiction film in a variety of ways – see, for example, the work
of Fredric Jameson, Brooks Landon, and my own “robotic” history of
the form48 – one of the most important voices in this context is that of
Scott Bukatman. Less concerned with specific science fiction film texts
than with the genre in its various manifestations (film, literature, com-
ics, video games), he approaches the form symptomatically, finding in
it essential clues to the character of postmodern society. As he notes
in his article “Who Programs You?” the science fiction film with its se-
mantics of technology, artifice, and spectacle “has obtained such a
lately privileged position” in the area of cultural commentary precisely
because it speaks the language of a technological, artificial, and spec-
tacular world, because its technical concerns so closely parallel and
thus help trace out the “methodological terrain” of this new world.49
His more ambitious work, the book Terminal Identity, applies this van-
tage to that sense of a constructed self we find reflected throughout
contemporary science fiction, as he suggests that the genre “narrates
the dissolution of the very ontological structures that we usually take
for granted,” and that in the wake of this “dissolution” it offers striking
evidence of “both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity con-
structed at the computer station or television screen.”50
Ranging across a great variety of cinematic texts, including Metrop-
olis (1926), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Star Wars, Blade Run-
ner, and Tron (1982), Bukatman effectively describes that “terminal
identity” that both our science fiction texts and our science fictional
culture have already constructed for us. In Tron, for example, Flynn, the
film’s game designer/hacker protagonist, is digitally sucked into the vir-
tual world of a mainframe computer and must learn to survive in this
electronic realm. This “disengagement from the physical body” and
consignment to “an infinite, potential space” within the computer51
suggest, according to Bukatman, situations with which we are already
familiar; for we are, in a sense, already part of the machine, our lives
and indeed our very personalities already partly defined by the new
electronic technologies – not only the computer, but also its exten-
sions, such as the Internet, e-mail, and the lifelike computer-generated
imagery of film and television – that are part of everyday life. That sort
of life, lived by many for long hours within cyberspace, and that new
sense of self simply constitute, he argues, in keeping with the postmod-
ern sensibility, “our new, and inescapable state of being.”52
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 57

Figure 27. Blade Runner (1982) envisions the postindustrial cityscape and
world of late capitalism in its downtown Los Angeles of 2020.

More concerned with how that postmodern consciousness has in-

fluenced the very nature of film, Giuliana Bruno, particularly in her dis-
cussion of what is certainly the key postmodern science fiction film,
Blade Runner, marks a slightly different turn in this approach to the
genre. Working from the notion that this film stands as a revealing “met-
aphor of the postmodern condition,” Bruno explores its representa-
tions of time and space, particularly what she terms its “schizophrenic
temporality” and “spatial pastiche,” to sketch the outlines of “the dark
side of technology” and “the process of disintegration” that haunt post-
modern existence and postmodern film.53 Thus the constant sense of
physical decay and disrepair in Blade Runner, she suggests, points up
the interconnected patterns of “consumerism, waste, and recycling”
that mark late capitalism; the look of the female replicants evokes “the
model of postindustrial fashion, the height of exhibition and recycling”;
and the “inclusive, hybrid architectural design” underscores the “geo-
graphical displacements and condensations” of postindustrial city life
[Fig. 27].54 Inhabiting this city of decay, the humans and replicants –
who ultimately form mirror images of each other – are plagued by
58 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

“questions of identity, identification, and history” that recall postmod-

ernism’s “world of fragmented temporality,” a world in which we are
constantly trying to reclaim history and a sense of continuity through
a variety of strategies, such as the photograph or the filmic image.55 In
effect, Bruno finds in Blade Runner a kind of encoded model of the post-
modern human context, a model that draws on the fundamental rela-
tionship between the human and the technological driving the science
fiction narrative to limn the dislocated and driven nature of much of
postmodern life.

Although this postmodern turn seems pervasive in contemporary sci-
ence fiction film criticism, it most often functions as part of a larger
critical armory, suggesting, in the process, a level on which critical
thinking has itself become informed by that spirit of pastiche and
schizophrenia of which Bruno speaks. Typically, postmodern applica-
tions will draw in and on to various degrees the feminist, psychologi-
cal, and ideological assumptions already described, much as conven-
tional humanist examinations have also tried to locate a structure for
their investigations in the array of critical vantages described here. In
fact, the most accurate assessment of critical activity focused around
the science fiction genre today should emphasize the extent to which
many of these vantages have become so intertwined that it is rather
misleading and, indeed, almost impossible to speak of ideological con-
structions without also considering the cultural constructions of the
feminine, for example, or to attempt a kind of humanist analysis of a
particular image, plot pattern, or even a specific director’s work with-
in the genre without implicating, in a postmodernist turn, the ways in
which those images or events constantly foreground their artificial and
uncertain natures. Per Schelde’s Androids, Humanoids, and Other Sci-
ence Fiction Monsters affords a telling example of this inevitable confla-
tion. His study of the monstrous figure throughout the science fiction
film starts from a thoroughly conventional approach, as it promises to
offer what he terms an “anthropological” assessment of the form. As
he says, science fiction films have come to constitute “a kind of mod-
ern folklore” for our culture, recounting an ongoing “battle between na-
ture and culture.”56 Like most folktales, these narratives “are protesting
a reality which the people who have created them have . . . no power
to influence,” specifically the power of science as it appears to be
S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M : T H E C R I T I C A L C O N T E X T ❖ 59

“slowly invading our minds and bodies, making us more mechanical,

more like machines . . . robbing us of our humanity.”57 In an effort to
suggest the varied dimensions of the genre’s protest, Schelde eventu-
ally deploys a variety of critical vantages that help give a needed depth
to this otherwise simple assessment: ideological, as he addresses ways
in which the genre grates against the dominant ideology (although,
he allows, its “subversion never goes very far”);58 feminist, as he de-
scribes how, in its most provocative moments, the genre “points to
other possibilities in terms of gender and roles than . . . we are accus-
tomed to”;59 and the archetypal, as he focuses on iconic figures such
as the hero and shaman, who provide key structural and meaning
components to the form. Though Schelde eventually does little more
than nod in several of these directions, the effort to draw in these var-
ied approaches well suggests the complex ways in which we have
come to question the science fiction film in the postmodern context.
In the present study too I try to bring to bear a variety of critical van-
tages in suggesting a useful and systematic way of reading the science
fiction film. As noted in the opening chapter, the primary focus in this
book is on the way in which the form functions generically, that is, on
its workings as a kind of cinematic language, and on how its workings
might eventually shed light on the ways in which other genres operate
as well. While treating the genre within this broadly construed linguis-
tic context – and borrowing simultaneously from the structuralist ap-
proach of Tzvetan Todorov and the ideological addendum to his work
provided by Rosemary Jackson – this study is also informed, perhaps
inevitably, by a postmodern view of cinema and technology that sug-
gests the various ways in which the science fiction film, throughout
its diverse thematic excursions, repeatedly scrutinizes what we might
term the category of the real. As a form whose boundaries are, perhaps
more than any other popular genre, always open or blurred, as a narra-
tive type that always focuses on the tools of human fabrication, that
is, on the science and technology that lend science fiction its very dis-
tinctive character, and as a cinematic type that relies fundamentally on
its own technological capacity – and increasingly that of the computer
– to visualize that which might be, the science fiction film inevitably
foregrounds as no other genre does our attitudes toward the real.
Through that interrogation of the real, it asks a number of fundamental
questions that, today, seem to haunt not only American but the larger
human culture: How do we define ourselves, how do we construct our
world, and even more broadly, how do we know? The following chap-
60 ❖ A P P R O A C H E S

ters, as they turn to specific and exemplary science fiction texts, while
deploying a combination of structural, ideological, and postmodern
methods, will explore how our films have effectively addressed these
crucial questions.

Historical Overview
A Trajectory of the American Science
Fiction Film

n order to understand how the American science fiction film works
and what it has, over its history, managed to accomplish, we need
to view it against a brief chronological background. In fact, as is
typically the case with cultural texts, we probably need to keep in mind
several histories whose confluence and overlap have helped to shape
our experience of the genre in film. For example, among other stories
that this history implicates, we shall have to tap into the body of myth-
ic and folkloric narratives in Western culture on which the larger field
of science fiction draws, the development of a distinctive literary
genre, particularly in the nineteenth century, the rise of pulp literature
that finally gives the genre its name in the twentieth century, the early
history of cinema that at moments seems practically synchronous with
the appearance of the science fiction film itself, the development of a
technological attitude in what we have come to know as the Machine
Age (1900–40), and the gradual formation of a distinct cinematic for-
mula, especially within the American cinema. In point of fact, though,
it is almost impossible to isolate any one of these histories from the
others, to speak of each separately without doing some injustice to the
absent yet always-informing other discourses. Thus the following his-
tory, while proceeding in a roughly chronological and, in that respect,
fairly conventional fashion, aims to contextualize the film genre with-
in the continuum of generic, cultural, and even technological develop-
ments on which it has drawn and to which it bears constant witness.
In doing so, this history, like science fiction itself, as well as the larger
pattern of fantasy, will repeatedly cut across boundaries of various
sorts, often citing key books and films from outside the American sci-
ence fiction tradition. It will do so, though, because American science
fiction, like America itself, represents such a melting pot of influences,
a confluence of ideas, concerns, and pressures that together have fash-
ioned our contemporary culture.

❖ 63
64 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

Certainly, the whole genre of science fiction owes much to a body of
Western discourse that precedes the development of film and that
looks toward the development of Western science. For example, a va-
riety of mythic and folkloric narratives about our fascination with tech-
nological power emerge from ancient Greek culture. In The Iliad we
learn of the god Hephæstus’ efforts at crafting mobile tripods, Ur-
robots, to serve his fellow gods at their feasting. As a human comple-
ment to this divine model, we might consider a figure like Dædalus, of-
ten described as the most famous technician of the ancient world, who,
legend has it, fashioned a bronze man to serve King Minos of Crete and
whose mythic life finds its focus in the proto–science fiction story sur-
rounding him: the tale of how he created artificial wings for flight when
he and his son Icarus needed to escape their patron. Both of these fig-
ures, however, as well as many others, find their real prototype in the
legend of Prometheus, who sought to wrest the secret of life and cre-
ativity from the gods and offer it as a boon to humanity. The fact that
Prometheus failed and, as a result, suffered a terrible punishment iden-
tifies him as the model for a long line of overreachers after knowledge
– of scientists, inventors, or creators who have sought to explore for-
bidden territory, of curious humans who have tried to uncover what
we were not meant to know, of powerful figures who simply used their
technological masterly in a wrong or ill-advised fashion. All of these
figures eventually suffer the consequences of their actions.

Those reachers, searchers, explorers after knowledge are all engaged
in work that, even amid the many shifts in focus and concern that the
genre has taken, seems to lie at the core of the science fiction story and
ultimately the science fiction film; they give shape to what we might
call its Ur-story. They are involved in the process of asking the ques-
tion of what might be or could be through the power of human knowl-
edge, either for good or ill. For this reason David Hartwell describes
the evolved science fiction narrative as “a uniquely modern incarna-
tion of an ancient tradition: the tale of wonder.”1 Such narratives thus
include not only the Greek myths noted above but also a long line of
Western literary progenitors, including Sir Thomas More and his Uto-
pia (1516), Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638), Cyrano de

Bergerac’s fantastic conception of moon travel in L’Autre Monde (1657),

and even Jonathan Swift’s satiric take on the extraordinary voyage tale,
Gulliver’s Travels (1726); yet while such works develop a number of the
concerns that would come to characterize science fiction and typically
involve a curious if not quite “scientific” central figure, they are gener-
ally tales content with reporting the strange, emphasizing exaggera-
tions, or simply inverting the status quo. The “tale of wonder” had not
quite found a consistent pattern or purpose, in large part because the
cultural conditions that would shape such a purpose were not yet in
That sense of consistency, focused especially on the powers and at-
tractions of human reason, becomes apparent with the emergence of
the literary genre in the nineteenth century. H. Bruce Franklin argues
that this appearance of a literary tradition of science fiction directly re-
sults from a key shift in Western culture, that it “developed as part of
industrial society,” as an imaginative way of addressing modern cul-
ture’s increasing reliance on science and technology.2 In effect, the In-
dustrial Revolution, like all other revolutions, generated an imaginative
response, its own literature, through which the culture could speak of,
respond to, and better understand the changing shape of the world.
Specifically, we can observe this development of the genre in the work
of a number of canonical figures of European literature linked to a new
scientific consciousness, most notably Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and
H. G. Wells, as well as in the writings of a great variety of America au-
thors, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jack Lon-
don, among many others. Franklin particularly emphasizes the signif-
icance of this American literary line, as he observes that the United
States “was from the start especially congenial to science fiction,” since
only this form seemed capable of coming to terms with the country’s
rapid transformation and ready embrace of technological develop-
ment,3 with its spirit of change.
Drawing heavily on the canonical authors cited above, Edward
James in his historical account of the genre, Science Fiction in the Twen-
tieth Century, offers a simple yet useful way of looking at how the form
developed through the nineteenth century in response to this spirit.
He suggests that we see science fiction literature as the gradual evolu-
tion and conflation of three distinct types of story: the “extraordinary
voyage,” the “tale of the future,” and the “tale of science.”4 Although
he traces the first of these back to the Middle Ages, James tends to
see the other two as of rather recent vintage, rooted primarily in that
66 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

nineteenth-century industrial spirit and particularly in the writings of

Shelley and Verne. These authors are solidly connected to what we
might term mainstream literature, and their work figures prominently
in studies of, for example, the Romantic era, the development of the
short story, fantasy narrative, naturalism, and social consciousness in
literature; yet each sought to move mainstream or traditional issues
in a slightly different direction, to recontextualize the key concerns of
their eras by drawing on fantasy elements that would eventually con-
stellate as the science fiction tale. Mary Shelley, for example, in both
her landmark tale Frankenstein (1818) and her futuristic novel The Last
Man (1827), subjected the human place in the natural order, a frequent
concern of the Romantics, to a new scientific measure, as she explored
the possibilities for physically creating life, as well as for finally extin-
guishing all of human life. Though Poe’s fiction rarely offers us science
itself as a key subject, it does, as Harold Beaver argues, repeatedly fo-
cus on figures who would become very familiar in a mature science fic-
tion, ones who “from the start played the experimental, philosophical
role: making ‘proper scientific observations’”5 – observations that Poe
then critiqued again and again, in his essays as well as his stories. Here
we might especially note his treatment of experiments in mesmerism
and magnetism on the near-dead in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valde-
mar” (1846), his satiric account of a theory for transmuting lead into
gold in “Von Kempelen and His Discovery” (1849), and his tale of Ant-
arctic exploration, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). For Jules
Verne the “extraordinary voyage” – a story type linked to the work of
such disparate figures as Poe, Herman Melville, and Charles Darwin in
the nineteenth century – became a vehicle for espousing human pro-
gress and the key role science might play in that progress. That role is
easily measured by the various technological devices and vehicles his
voyagers typically created and on which his novels turned – the space
capsule of From the Earth to the Moon (1865), the submarine of Twenty
Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), the balloon of Around the World
in 80 Days (1873). Jack London in his novel The Iron Heel (1907) used
the mechanism of the futuristic story to project the Darwinian concept
of “nature red in tooth and claw,” of life as an evolutionary battle for
survival of the fittest, to a social conclusion. His vision of the future
is one of inevitable class warfare between the socialists and what he
terms the “Oligarchy” that eventually arises from a rampant capital-
ism. These writers, along with such others as Robert Louis Stevenson
and Edward Bellamy, not only explored situations with which we would

soon become very familiar in the dawn of the Machine Age, but they
created characters – Dr. Frankenstein, Captain Nemo, Dr. Moreau, Dr.
Jekyll – who would become constant types of the mature science fic-
tion formula and the sort of overreachers on whom the American film
industry would quickly and repeatedly draw.
Of course, the key figure in this literary development is the English-
man H. G. Wells. In the late nineteenth century, when he first began to
establish his reputation, Wells was, as Edward James argues, less a
pure science fiction writer than a creator of “scientific romances,” as
he termed them, one for whom science was not “the creator of certain-
ties and unveiler of mysteries, but . . . the great purveyor of mystery
and wonder, just as religion had been in its time.”6 Like Shelley, he cre-
ated a series of blind overreachers, as we see in such novels as The Is-
land of Dr. Moreau (1895) and The Invisible Man (1897). In fact, the title
figure of the former tale clearly seems a gloss on Shelley’s Dr. Franken-
stein, informed by the later findings of Darwin, as he experiments with
turning animals into humans – or at least creatures resembling humans
– through painful surgery, rigorous behavioral conditioning, and even
the interbreeding of species. Also, like his French near-contemporary
Verne, Wells offered his own brand of the extraordinary voyage tale, as
we see with a work like The Time Machine (1895), which not only af-
forded the pleasures of travel across another dimension, that of time,
but in so doing also forecast the lure of the cinema, itself often de-
scribed as a kind of time machine. Still, Wells’s sense of science was
hardly lodged in the same technological ground as was Verne’s work;
he simply foresaw other possibilities for the future and for human de-
velopment than those tied to a purely technological change. What he
brought to the form was an ability consistently to infuse a spirit of won-
der and speculation into the technological developments of the early
Machine Age, along with a growing concern for the social implications
of those developments; and it is for these efforts that Wells would be-
come widely known as the father of science fiction.
In American literature we can find a closely allied figure who simi-
larly exercised a great influence on the development of science fiction
on this side of the Atlantic, Edward Bellamy. Although Bellamy seems
not to have had the same sort of fascination with technology itself as
did Wells, he offered similar visions of social evolution, geared to tech-
nological change, particularly in his key utopian novels Looking Back-
ward (1888) and Equality (1897). The former, in fact, was one of the
most popular American books of any sort in the era and had such an
68 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

impact that, Bruce Franklin argues, it “changed the consciousness of

Americans more than any novel of the century except for Uncle Tom’s
Cabin.”7 In Looking Backward Bellamy tells a familiar tale of a young
man who falls asleep and awakens far in the future, to a world radically
changed by mechanization and social reorganization. That vision, of an
America transformed without recourse to strikes, unionization, or so-
cial disturbance, but rather as a result of American “know-how” and a
fundamentally pragmatic attitude, proved so appealing that those who
sought to put Bellamy’s vision into practice began forming all across
the nation Nationalist Clubs, as the members called them. In addition,
writers, both supportive of and antagonistic to Bellamy’s ideas, soon
produced a stream of similar utopian fictions, including such novels
as Arthur Vinton’s Looking Further Backward (1890), Ludwig Geissler’s
Looking Beyond (1891), J. W. Roberts’s Looking Within (1893), and Igna-
tius Donnelly’s highly popular Caesar’s Column (1891).
Building on this foundation, in the first decades of the twentieth cen-
tury, the era that would see the emergence of film as a key popular dis-
course, a large and heterogeneous body of Anglo-American science-
based writing appears: mainstream fiction; tracts debating the impact
of technology; and a wealth of pulp literature that would, in turn, feed
back into the development of a conventional body of science fiction
and eventually our films as well. Among the mainstream writers, we
should again note the continuing work of H. G. Wells, as well as the
emergence of Edgar Rice Burroughs with his Martian novels, and the
writings of Olaf Stapledon. Some of these figures were engaged as well
in the widespread public speculation on the future and the impact
of current scientific and technological developments that marks the
Machine Age. As Edward James reminds us, the 1920s and 1930s saw
“quite a ‘boom’ in futurology.”8 One example of this side of the period’s
literature is the massive “Today and Tomorrow” pamphlet series in
England, which speculated on the possible changes that science would
bring in various social institutions and included contributions from the
likes of Bertrand Russell, J. B. S. Haldane, and André Maurois.
We can again find a corresponding development in America where,
as Bruce Franklin offers, the society was, to all appearances, “constant-
ly being revolutionized by technological change.”9 Here there was a tra-
dition of mechanical tinkerers, of garage inventors, as well as a wide-
spread enthusiasm for devices whose mechanical efficiency would
both serve industrial expansion and accommodate an emerging mass
culture. Nurtured in this cultural climate and given the lead of Bel-

lamy’s and those other utopian novels previously noted, there came
a profusion of technological writings, a great number of articles, ad-
dresses, tracts, and fictional pieces. As a body they argued that the
rapid technological developments Americans were then witnessing –
among them, the introduction of the electric light, the telephone, ra-
dio, automobile, airplane, and certainly the cinema – heralded great
social change and upheaval as well. Moreover, as Howard Segal offers,
much of this work, as in the case of Harold Loeb’s Life in a Technocracy
(1933), blurred the usual generic boundaries, such that there at times
seemed “no qualitative distinction . . . between the fictional and the
nonfictional” discussion of this technologically driven change.10

The Pulps
This blurring of distinctions is noteworthy in part because of the fan-
tasy vantage I want to introduce for thinking about the science fiction
film, and because of the fantastic’s constant emphasis on liminal or
border situations that challenge our sense of the real. It is equally sig-
nificant, however, because of the way the pulp literature, itself a kind
of border inhabitant between adult fiction and juvenile fare, would in
its most significant manifestations come to inflect the whole field of
science fiction in this same period. In fact, it eventually gives the name
to the genre that heretofore had been referred to by a variety of titles,
including “scientific romance,” “fantascience,” “invention stories,”
“pseudo-scientific fiction,” and, for much of the form’s early history
in the twentieth century, “scientifiction.”11 Science fiction stories ap-
peared in many popular literary magazines during the nineteenth cen-
tury, and those tales often spawned more ambitious publications, such
as the Frank Reade Library, a series of short novels about wondrous
inventions that ran from 1892 to 1898. In 1908 Hugo Gernsback, the
key figure in the early development of the popular pulp magazines (so-
called because of the cheap paper on which they were printed), began
publishing a magazine devoted to popular science, Modern Electrics
(later retitled Science and Invention). He included in it not only articles
on current scientific developments and proposals, but also science-
themed stories, including some of his own fiction, and eventually he
offered the first of several special “scientific fiction” numbers. The
1920s and 1930s saw an explosion of work in this area with the advent
of a variety of pulps dedicated to such fiction, or as Gernsback chris-
tened it in the pages of his new magazine Amazing Stories, “scientific-
70 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

tion” [Fig. 28]. In Amazing, which first appeared in 1926 (running un-
til 1995 and then reappearing in 1998), he initially featured reprints of
work by Wells, Verne, and Poe but soon shifted to original material, pro-
viding a forum for many of the more important early science fiction
writers, including E. E. “Doc” Smith and Jack Williamson. After losing
control of Amazing, Gernsback continued his pioneering efforts with
other pulps, such as Science Wonder Stories – in the pages of which he
finally settled on the term “science fiction” in 1929 – and Air Wonder
Stories. Appearing in 1929, both of these later pulps heavily contributed
to developing a devoted readership for the incipient form and inspir-
ing a number of imitators.
The most important of these imitators is undoubtedly Astounding
Stories of Super Science (1930, renamed Analog in 1960 and continuing
to the present), which would play a particularly prominent role in the
further development of the genre; for Astounding not only launched the
careers of some of the seminal figures in modern science fiction liter-
ature, including Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, Lester Del Rey, Robert
Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon, but also sought to align itself with
the most recent scientific thinking. Thus the magazine’s second editor,
F. Orlin Tremaine, argued that “there is no reason why Astounding
should not serve as an exponent of scientific advancement” and even-
tually be seen, through the forum it offered for serious discussion of
scientific topics, as “the cradle of modern science.”12 By paying more
than its competitors for the best science fiction, by constantly insisting
on a high level of scientific accuracy in the work it published, and –
thanks to the cover art of its chief illustrator, Hubert Rogers – even
by increasingly envisioning its science fiction worlds in more realistic
ways than the other pulps, Astounding exerted a strong influence on
the development of the form, and particularly on the nature of its au-
Under the subsequent direction of its most famous editor, John W.
Campbell Jr., the magazine directly influenced the very nature of the
fiction it published. Following Tremaine’s lead, Campbell insisted that
contributions not contravene known scientific fact. Thus, in order to
publish his “Tools” story (1942), Clifford Simak had to modify its depic-
tion of Venus to fit with recent discoveries about that planet’s climate.13
At the same time Campbell tried to steer his contributors away from
the realm of simple scientific lecture and dry speculation, insisting, as
Edward James offers, that “authors should present the background and
the scientific information seamlessly woven into their stories.”14 In the

Figure 28. One of the primary pulps, Gernsback’s Amazing Stories (1927) offers
audiences “scientifiction” and reprints the work of H. G. Wells.

case of one of Asimov’s first robot stories, “Liar” (1941), that injunction
prodded the author, after much discussion with Campbell, to work out
the conflict in his tale by creating his famous “Three Laws of Robotics,”
the rules that govern the logic and dictate the safety of human–robot
relations and that have since been assumed by many other writers on
72 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

the subject. Campbell also dictated that contributions should be spe-

cifically concerned not simply with “amazing inventions and heroic sci-
entists,” but with “the societies and cultures of the future,”15 that is,
with how scientific advances might reshape human culture and his-
tory. In effect, through Astounding and his thirty-four-year editorship,
Campbell helped give shape and even a social thrust to the develop-
ing form.
Nevertheless, if the pulps were important for the evolution of the
literary genre, they probably had far less immediate impact on a de-
veloping science fiction cinema than did another sort of fantastic nar-
rative. Appealing to a younger and probably less serious audience, cer-
tainly one less concerned with either the factual basis for the fantastic
events depicted or the social dimensions of the form than with its sim-
ple ability to visualize what might be, were the science fiction comics
that began appearing at approximately the same time as the pulp mag-
azines and that did indeed tend to focus on “amazing inventions and
heroic scientists” or other adventurous figures – in short, on the sort
of “amazing” and “astounding” icons and figures that could be readily
translated to the screen. In 1929 Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century
(scripted by Philip Francis Nowlan, drawn by Dick Calkins) began syn-
dication in American newspapers, and it was soon followed by such
imitators as Flash Gordon (done by Alex Raymond) and Brick Bradford
(scripted by William Ritt and illustrated by Clarence Grey), as well as
by a variety of similar figures in the comic books. Foremost among
these was Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, which, after a
successful introduction in Action Comics in 1938, was featured in his
own comic book beginning in 1939. Thereafter, a variety of such types
appeared, all of them endowed with superhuman powers – and phys-
iques – and all devoted to using those powers to better society; among
them we might especially note Marvel Comics’s Captain Marvel (1940,
written by Otto O. Binder, drawn by Clyde Beck). Together with more
generally science fiction–themed comics, such as Planet Comics and
Hugo Gernsback’s effort in this vein, Superworld, the superhero comics
helped extend and develop a science fiction audience in the 1930s and
In large part because they did emphasize heroic action, larger-than-
life figures, and striking images over social commentary, many of these
comic narratives were quickly imported into film as sources for one
of the most popular veins of early science fiction cinema, the serials.
Among the many such adaptations that would appear well into the

Figure 29. From the comic strips to the movies, Buck Rogers faces danger in
the 1939 serial.

1940s, we might note especially Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon’s

Trip to Mars (1938), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), Buck
Rogers (1939) [Fig. 29], Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Brick Brad-
ford (1947), and Superman (1948).16 However, while both the comics
and the serials furnished images and character types that would con-
tinue to energize science fiction cinema, even to the present time, they
offer little hint of the sort of explorations that the best of the pulps and
the more ambitious science fiction novels to follow would stake out:
concerns with artificial life, the ethics of scientific experimentation, the
designing of society. The comics thus helped to mark off the territory,
to establish firmly many of what we might term the genre’s semantic
elements, although they often helped to place the form, at least within
the popular imagination, in a far more sensationalistic context than a
Wells might have anticipated or appreciated.
74 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

They also help to foreground and remind us of another important

dimension of the science fiction field that would eventually inflect our
films, namely, the work of the science fiction illustrator or artist. One
of the chief attractions of both the comics and the pulps was, of course,
the bright and imaginative artwork that adorned their covers and
pages – work that effectively visualized the strange worlds, alien be-
ings, heroic figures, and technological devices that the stories had con-
jured up, while also attracting the eyes of potential readers at news-
stands. As a distinct tradition, science fiction illustration reaches back
to the late nineteenth century with Albert Robida, who illustrated his
own books, and Warwick Goble, who did sketches for the early work
of H. G. Wells. In the early twentieth century some of the most notable
figures are J. Allen St. John, illustrator of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s work,
particularly his John Carter series of Martian tales, and Frank R. Paul,
a trained architect who did the cover art for many of Gernsback’s mag-
azines – Amazing, Science Wonder Stories, and even Planet Comics.
Whereas St. John emphasized heroic, larger-than-life figures moving
through fantastic landscapes, Paul was more given to vivid colors, de-
tails, and decorative elements as he envisioned the technical gadgetry
of the pulps. Among the later science fiction artists we should especial-
ly note Chesley Bonestall, Ed Emshwiller, and Frank Frazetta. Specializ-
ing in astronomy illustration, Bonestall crafted extremely detailed and
accurate depictions of space. He not only did many cover illustrations
for science fiction magazines and novels, but also contributed artwork
to mainstream magazines like Life and was responsible for the set de-
sign and matte paintings for the film Destination Moon (1950). Through-
out the 1950s and 1960s, Emshwiller contributed cover art and interior
illustrations to practically every science fiction and fantasy magazine,
offering intricate designs that drew on his training in abstract expres-
sionist art. After winning five Hugo Awards for outstanding science fic-
tion artist, he would turn to creating experimental films and computer
animation and, as a dean at California Institute of the Arts, inspiring
others in that area. Frazetta generated a wide following with his illus-
trations for a variety of comics under the EC imprint and covers for re-
issues of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s stories of Mars and Venus. Far less so-
phisticated than Emshwiller’s work, Frazetta’s illustrations are highly
dramatic and sexually charged, typically emphasizing a violent scene
and overproportioned seminude figures. A final figure who deserves
mention in this category because of his impact on film is the Swiss sur-
realist artist H. R. Giger. Though not really an illustrator, Giger has done
covers for several important science fiction works. However, he is best

known for his biomechanical art, which produced a commission to de-

sign the alien figures in the highly successful Alien and Species film se-
ries. Giger, like the other illustrators mentioned here, has fundamental-
ly helped to shape the way in which we see the alien other, the future,
and the technology that attends it – in effect, the stock-in-trade of a
science fiction cinema.17

Science Fiction Literature

It is the development of science fiction into a mainstream literary genre
– primarily in the post–World War II era as many of the pulp writers
undertook more ambitious projects – that would increasingly exert a
shaping influence on more conventional fiction, on popular culture in
general, and ultimately on an increasingly popular science fiction cin-
ema. By the time H. G. Wells died in 1946, a new generation of science
fiction writers was beginning to publish novel-length works, often se-
rialized in pulps such as Astounding, Startling Stories, and Galaxy. In that
same year, for example, Ray Bradbury published the first story of his
Martian Chronicles in the magazine Planet Stories, and in the next year
the first half of Jack Williamson’s key novel The Humanoids appeared
in Astounding. Among the many other writers who were serializing
more ambitious works and drawing a following in the immediate post-
war era, we should note Asimov (I, Robot, 1950; Foundation, 1951), Hein-
lein (Red Planet, 1949; The Puppet Masters, 1951), Simak (City, 1952),
Sturgeon (More Than Human, 1953), Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End,
1953; The Other Side of the Sky, 1958), and A. E. Van Vogt (The World of
Null A, 1945; The Voyage of the Space Beagle, 1950). The popularity of
their longer works, along with the unparalleled development of a de-
voted science fiction fandom, demonstrated, as James suggests, that
science fiction “had become a recognized entity, and one that had a
very specific image”18 in the popular consciousness – and certainly a
far more serious one than the early pulps had projected.
That status helped spur the established publishing industry to
move into the “new” field of science fiction. Thus, in the post–World
War II era a number of major publishers began issuing science fiction
novels, often in the context of particular series. For example, starting
in 1947 with Rocket Ship Galileo, Scribner’s began a long relationship
with Heinlein to produce a body of what are often referred to as “juve-
nile” novels, and in 1952 the publisher Harcourt Brace followed with
a similar series of books written by Andre Norton. At the same time,
paperback publishing was becoming an increasingly important part of
76 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

the book industry and provided, particularly with the activity of such
publishers as Ace and Ballantine Books, as well as the development of
such specialty science fiction publishers as DAW Books, more outlets
for serious science fiction literature.
The development of science fiction as a major literary market and
the eventual appearance of writers who have increasingly blurred the
boundaries between the form and more conventional fiction have rad-
ically changed the face of science fiction literature and, in the process,
broadened its impact on contemporary culture. Of course, mainstream
writers such as Aldous Huxley with Brave New World (1932), George Or-
well with 1984 (1949), and Nevil Shute with On the Beach (1957) had
achieved great success in the form and inspired imitators as well as
various cinematic adaptations. With the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Wil-
liam S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo, and especially
the recent wave of “cyberpunk” writers such as William Gibson and
Bruce Sterling, though, we can see an increasing tendency to erase any
real distinction between science fiction and mainstream fiction, as both
seem to have converged on the central cultural issues of our time; or
as Scott Bukatman states the case, “science fiction has, in many ways,
prefigured the dominant issues of postmodern culture,”19 and thus of
postmodern literature as well.
Leading the way in this prefiguring is, as noted above, a new mode
of science fiction, that produced by the cyberpunk writers, most no-
tably DeLillo, Sterling, and especially Gibson. The cyberpunk literature
they have produced at times seems closer to mainstream literature
than to classical science fiction, as it draws on the hard-boiled figures
of Dashiell Hammett’s detective stories, the Beat sensibility of Bur-
roughs, and the paranoid climate Pynchon has traced through the
whole range of contemporary popular culture; yet it is distinctive in its
pervasively technological climate, its fascination with bioengineering,
and the dystopian landscape through which its alienated figures typ-
ically move. As Veronica Hollinger neatly sums up, cyberpunk fiction
investigates “the technological ramifications of experience within late
capitalist, postindustrial, media-saturated Western society.”20 Though
the term itself first appears as the title of a short story by Bruce Bethke,
its most influential and best-known exponent is William Gibson, whose
novel Neuromancer (1984) has become the defining example of this
movement. The novel sketches a punk subculture wherein nature and
technology have become practically indistinguishable, thanks to our
computer-driven capacity for reproducing practically anything. Its pro-
tagonist, Case, is a computer hacker who lives through and seemingly

for the computer, only feeling alive while “inside” what Gibson terms
“the consensual hallucination that was the matrix,” that is, the elec-
tronic environment or virtual reality of the computer world.21 Through
his hacking skills, Case liberates an artificial intelligence (AI) from the
constraints its human creators have placed on it, an accomplishment
that, he eventually learns, has been manipulated at every turn by the
AI itself. That achievement thus leaves us with questions about who or
what is in charge in this new digital world, about how we should define
life in such an environment, and about how our own sense of self is
constructed by the culture we inhabit – all questions that resonate
throughout subsequent cyberpunk literature.
More than just symptomatic of a special direction in science fiction
writing, though, cyberpunk literature points up how closely science fic-
tion tracks the dominant direction of postmodern art; for the sorts of
issue Gibson and his followers explore are shared by many contem-
porary writers, most of whom would hardly identify themselves as sci-
ence fiction authors: a fascination with and knowledge of technology,
an interest in its impact on contemporary culture, and a tendency to
aesthetic experimentation and innovation that derives from the gen-
eral postmodern questioning of representation itself. The resulting
appearance of a “postmodern science fiction,” as Larry McCaffery de-
scribes it, seems “the inevitable result of art responding to the techno-
logical milieu that is producing postmodern culture at large.”22 At the
base of that reaction, Richard Kadrey and McCaffery find a “deeply
schizophrenic attitude toward science” that was seldom to be found in
classic science fiction (although it is subtly woven throughout Wells’s
early work) but that has become an almost inescapable element of the
whole postmodern cultural landscape.23 As this postmodern impulse
continues to drive science fiction and to draw both it and more con-
ventional fiction into a similar if not always identical orbit, as science
fiction and mainstream literature repeatedly demonstrate that they
have, as Brian McHale argues, a “shared repertoire of motifs and strate-
gies,”24 we can see the form becoming less a speculation on what might
be than a mirror and an extension of the very fantastic nature of our
world – a signpost of that world’s borders, a question posed to its re-

Early Science Fiction Cinema

This confluence may help to explain the great popularity of the science
fiction film today, as it has become arguably the most popular of our
78 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

culture’s generic formulas. It is a link, though, that has always been im-
plicit in the form. As Garrett Stewart has suggested, when we think of
science fiction in the cinema, we inevitably find ourselves considering
more than a particular set of images drawn from our culture or a cer-
tain type of plot familiar from a tradition of science fiction literature;
we also face “the fictional or fictive science of the cinema itself, the fu-
ture feats it may achieve scanned in line with the technical feat that
conceives them right now and before our eyes.”25 If, on the one hand,
the cinema has often become, as Stewart says, a “synecdoche for the
entire technics of an imagined society,” on the other, all of our visions
of what might be, of “an imagined society,” have become reflective of
the cinema as well.26 Certainly, our film histories have long recognized
this link. Terry Ramsaye in his early account of the motion picture’s
origins describes film pioneer Robert W. Paul’s efforts at enlisting H. G.
Wells’s cooperation in creating a device that could offer audiences a
Time Machine–like experience, a “screen project” that would enable
viewers “to materialize . . . the Past, Present, and Future all at once.”27
Yet both that “motion picture Time-machine idea” – which was never
brought to fruition – and the conception of Wells’s novel, as Ramsaye
notes, were already implicit in the very nature of the cinema, which
was always, thanks to its “peculiar . . . ability to petrify and preserve
moments of fleeting time,”28 fundamentally a kind of time machine, a
device that effectively freed both its audience and its early users from
a conventional sense of time and place.
Despite this sort of conceptual similarity, science fiction film – and,
indeed, the cinema itself – certainly owes much to a different set of aes-
thetic and industrial impulses that we should emphasize. If the literary
genre had developed as part of and a reaction to industrial society, it
still owed much to the Western literary tradition. As we have suggest-
ed, its lure was in part mythic, and it appealed to a literate audience,
one that was open to and even enthusiastic about inventions, science,
and the changes that science heralded; and if it engaged what was ear-
lier termed a sense of wonder in the audience, it did so privately, con-
juring in the individual imagination the images to satisfy that wonder.
Film, on the other hand, was practically from the start a mass art in-
tended for the broadest audience, offering them a series of common
visual appeals, constituting what Tom Gunning has labeled a “cinema
of attractions.”29 As its commercial situation developed – a situation
that, at least in America, often involved a kind of assembly-line proce-
dure for turning out a predictable product – the film industry tended

Figure 30. The start for one of Méliès’s fantastic journeys in one of the first
science fiction films, A Trip to the Moon (1902).

to generate highly formulaic texts, aimed not specifically at advancing

interest in the world of science or even catering to such an interest, but
at providing expected and proven narrative satisfactions, geared to the
strengths and resources of a particular movie studio.
The chief figure leading to the development of such a cinema is also
one of the founding fathers of cinematic science fiction, Georges Mé-
liès. A Frenchman who was a trained magician and owner of a theater
specializing in fantastic stage presentations, Méliès discovered in the
properties of film technology a great potential for furthering his fan-
tasy efforts, particularly in the mechanism’s ability to create a whole
new sense of time and space; for Méliès found that by simply starting
and stopping his camera he could create amazing appearances and dis-
appearances, animate practically anything, and, without ever leaving
his Montreuil studio, send his characters on fantastic journeys and ex-
plorations, as in the case of what is certainly his most famous work,
A Trip to the Moon (1902) [Fig. 30]. This sixteen-minute adaptation from
Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865, and probably mixed with el-
80 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

ements of Wells’s 1901 novel First Men in the Moon), tells the story of
enterprising Earthmen who undertake a trip to the moon by shooting
themselves there in a massive gun. Once on the moon they encounter
astounding flora and hostile selenites, barely escape captivity by these
moon people by “exploding” them, and push their shell off a ledge so
that it might “fall” back to Earth. In the course of this one-reeler, Méliès
established a variety of concerns that would remain central to the film
genre – rockets, space travel, alien beings, and violent conflict between
species – while also deploying many of the trick effects of the early cin-
ema. In his other and similar efforts, especially films like The Impos-
sible Voyage (1904) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1907), all clearly
influenced by Verne’s voyages extraordinaires series of novels, Méliès
continued to develop a relationship between film’s evolving vision of
science and technology and the cinema’s own technology, as he em-
ployed his growing arsenal of special effects – such as stop-action,
model work, use of miniatures, double exposures, primitive mattes,
and the practice of filming through various objects (such as an aquar-
ium to create undersea scenes) – to allow his prototypic science fiction
audience to undergo experiences that would be impossible in their
own space–time continuum.
The primary drawback in these early efforts is one that echoes a
number of complaints about much more recent science fiction film:
that, as Albert J. La Valley offers, “the fantasy powers of [Méliès’s] trick
films overrode any real interest in a technological future.”30 In short,
it was felt that the special effects became a bit too “special,” effectively
getting in the way of the science and its realistic depiction. That charge
is probably a bit unwarranted, however, for Méliès certainly never saw
himself as a creator of science fiction in the way that, say, H. G. Wells
did. His films offer up their various monsters, moonmen, and mad in-
ventors to period audiences with tongue in cheek, as Méliès, like the
magician he originally was, simply sought to astound his viewers with
the transformations his fantasy could work on reality – thereby open-
ing up his fantastic theater to the entire world.
That fantastic practice was readily imitated in American films of the
day, in the “cinema of attractions” that dominated early screens. In this
cinema ruled by curiosities, amazing spectacles, and simple fantasies,
Méliès-like fantastic transformations and comic inventions found a
ready place, as is evidenced by numerous imitations of Méliès’s films,
as well as works like Fun in the Butcher Shop (1901), in which dogs turn
into sausages, and Dr. Skinum (1907), which depicts a machine that

can automatically transform humans from ugly to beautiful. These and

many similar shorts from this period emphasize the amazing proper-
ties and, in most cases, the humorous products of a variety of ma-
chines – a line of development that would see its fullest expression not
so much in a science fiction cinema, which never fully blossoms in this
era, as in the comedies that so dominated American screens of the
1910s and 1920s. In the works of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Buster
Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, out-of-control tin lizzies and other infernal
or Rube Goldberg–like machines would invariably create comic pande-
monium. Indeed, Raymond Durgnat’s assessment of Sennett’s come-
dies, that they “register not only the shock of speed but the spreading
concept of man as an impersonal object existing only to work rapidly,
rhythmically, repetitively,”31 reminds us of the extent to which our fas-
cination with – and even recoil against – the machine and modern
technology informed much of the early cinema.

The Machine Age

That comic kinship points toward the development of the first major
era of cinematic science fiction, that which we might link to the Ma-
chine Age and its influence, particularly on American culture. The Ma-
chine Age is roughly that period from the start of World War I to the
beginnings of World War II – the era in which, as Richard Guy Wilson
offers, “machines and their products increasingly pervaded all aspects
of modern life. . . . Machines were everywhere,” and their presence ef-
fectively redefined how we saw “both the self and the world.”32 This
dominance of the machine and the development of an attendant ma-
chine consciousness produced a rather different attitude toward both
the cinema and science fiction, and it eventuated in the production of
the first truly distinct body of science fiction films. In this body of work,
anchored in a more serious approach to the world of science and tech-
nology, thanks to the very pervasiveness of the machine and a set of
values that had become attached to it, we can begin to see the variety
of narrative concerns and types that would come to mark this genre as
it developed well into the 1940s: utopian and dsytopian tales, stories
of marvelous inventions and mad scientists, hybrid concoctions of hor-
ror and science fiction, and the serials. Equally noteworthy is the fact
that we can trace this burgeoning of the genre across cultural bound-
aries, as countries such as the United States, Great Britain, France, the
Soviet Union, and Germany, all in the process of coming to grips with
82 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

the powerful new machines and the changes they were working on so-
ciety, produced almost equally important and fundamentally similar
contributions to the film genre.33
In the wake of World War I there followed not only a new enthusi-
asm for science and technology but also an outpouring of utopian writ-
ing, speculating on the possible cultural impact of these new develop-
ments. This writing reflected a number of the more important social
developments of the era – ones that either politically or economically
offered to change the very nature of human culture. We might consider,
in this context, the impact of Henry Ford and the new manufacturing
processes he inaugurated (particularly the organization of raw mate-
rials, the systematization of linked manufacturing processes, and the
assembly line, all commonly referred to as Fordism), Taylorism and its
commodification of individual labor (through time and motion stud-
ies), and Marxism with its emphasis on collective human activity. Re-
sponding to this spirit of the times, many countries produced films that
either explicitly or implicitly explored the implications of these “-isms,”
of the era’s emphasis on speed, efficiency, and collective action, by
depicting what life might be like in another time or place, one in which
many of these new developments had finally, and in most cases suc-
cessfully, been instituted.
One particularly noteworthy response was precisely in that comic
vein previously noted, as Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936) [Fig.
31] took on precisely the excesses of Fordism and Taylorism. Placing
his Little Tramp character in a thoroughly modernized factory, Chap-
lin illustrates the effects on the individual of the assembly line and of
those scientific time and motion studies that were supposed to pro-
duce the most efficient labor. Conditioned by repetitive motions of bolt
tightening, the Tramp cannot stop his twisting arms; in effect, he devel-
ops a new malady, an industrial tic. When he takes a restroom break,
the factory’s video surveillance system allows the owner to intrude
and order him to get back to work. Then, when attached to a newly in-
vented feeding machine, designed to keep the worker at his post dur-
ing lunchtime, the Tramp is assaulted by the contraption – hit with a
corn cob, scalded with hot coffee, fed steel bolts instead of pieces of
meat. The end product of these much-heralded “-isms,” of these phys-
ical manipulations of the human, is a complete psychological collapse,
as the Tramp goes crazy and is carted off to jail – ironically, the one
place in this “modern” world where he can find peace and comfort. In
this comic fantasy, a near kin to science fiction, Chaplin starkly sug-

Figure 31. Machines typically go out of control in silent comedy, as we see

when one “swallows” Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).

gests not what life might be like in a thoroughly technologized society,

but rather what it is already becoming.
Far more speculative efforts, situated squarely in the realm of sci-
ence fiction, are the various utopian/dystopian films that appeared in
Europe during the Machine Age. The foremost example of this trend
is the German film Metropolis (1926) [Fig. 32], which offered an even
starker vision of the plight of the worker than would Chaplin, and one
unleavened by any humor. It depicts the society of 2015, when the well-
to-do live in skyscrapers and enjoy a life of play and leisure, while the
workers inhabit a dreary underground world where they seem practi-
cally slaves to the machines that make the fantastic upper world work.
When their hope that a savior might come finally fails, the workers re-
volt against that upper world and, in the process, nearly destroy both
it and their own offspring. In the Soviet Union, Aelita (1924), an adapta-
84 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

Figure 32. The most influential vision of the futuristic city, Fritz Lang’s Metrop-
olis (1926).

tion of the Alexei Tolstoi novel, located its futuristic society on Mars;
but that world, as the Soviet space travelers of the narrative learn,
proves far more repressive and less open to progress than the still
struggling communist “paradise” the voyagers had left on Earth. In fact,
a supposed workers’ insurrection, aided by the Soviet visitors, turns
out to be a manipulated revolution to give a new leader, Aelita, dicta-
torial power. In England, H. G. Wells was finally lured into transferring
his social ideas to film, as Alexander Korda induced him to adapt for
the screen his book The Shape of Things to Come (1933), a tale of world
war that leads to the collapse of human civilization and its eventual re-
placement by a new society, but in this case a thoroughly rational one,
designed and ruled by the engineers. Things to Come (1936) leaves
viewers with an element of hope – as, in fact, do all of these utopian/
dystopian works, although in every case that hope seems an almost
desperate affirmation in spite of the problems that go unresolved.

Figure 33. Just Imagine’s American vision of the utopian city, New York of 1980
as imagined in 1930.

Occupying a kind of middle ground between Metropolis’s vision of a

world at odds with itself and Things to Come’s homage to progress and
planning is the key American entry in this utopian/dystopian vein, the
film Just Imagine (1930) [Fig. 33]. As Joseph J. Corn reminds us, “the vi-
sion of the future as a technological paradise has long been a central
theme in American culture,”34 and Just Imagine, with its emphasis on
demonstrating various inventions and labor-saving devices, such as
videophones, electric hand dryers, and baby-dispensing machines,
86 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

certainly suggested that a kind of technologically driven utopia was

just around the corner – to be realized by 1980. It is also probably the
most visually elaborate of the many utopian/dystopian efforts, with its
massive model of a future city (outscaling that of Metropolis), its rocket
ship and interplanetary travel, and its vision of an idol-worshiping soci-
ety on Mars. In fact, Just Imagine’s sets and footage were so impressive
that they would reappear in several later films, most notably the 1939
serial Buck Rogers. What may be most telling about the film, however,
is the very conservative base that underlies its futuristic vision – a
conservatism that seems more in keeping with an America not yet fully
visited by Depression realities and hardly disenchanted with the pros-
pects of technological development. With its lighthearted, musical-
comedy take on the future, Just Imagine ultimately suggests that, for all
the superficial alterations our advanced technology will surely bring,
everyday human activities and concerns will ultimately change very
Ironically, a greater focus on the potential for change often shows
up in the many films whose narratives center on marvelous inventions
or technological developments. In France, René Clair’s The Crazy Ray
(1924) comically explores the impact of a ray that freezes all move-
ment. For an age that prized productivity and the regular motion of the
assembly line – one whose credo, as Cecelia Tichi offers, was “speed
and . . . cultural acceleration”35 – this device represented a subtle strike
at some of its most fundamental values. More in tune with those val-
ues was a series of films emanating from England and Germany in the
1930s, several of them coproductions or remakes, and all bearing out
Tichi’s description of a deep-rooted “anxiety about a global state of in-
stability that fostered an intense appreciation for the power of technol-
ogy and its exponents.”36 The English film The Tunnel (aka Transatlan-
tic Tunnel) was a 1935 remake of an earlier German film, Der Tunnel
(1933). Both recount the building of a transatlantic tunnel that, by vir-
tue of bringing Europe and America closer together, helps to usher in
a new era of world peace and prosperity. This same concern with using
technology to assure widespread peace and prosperity echoes in the
German–British–French coproduction F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer (1933). A
spectacular vision of the development of a floating aerodrome in the
middle of the Atlantic Ocean, F.P. 1 employs elaborate model work and
the Schufftan process of combining miniatures with live-action footage
(first developed for the earlier Metropolis) to depict a massive private
enterprise that becomes a hub of world commerce.

Figure 34. American science fiction draws on early roots, one of Jules Verne’s
extraordinary voyages depicted in The Mysterious Island (1929).

If American depictions of such technological creations seem less

ambitious than their European counterparts in both their scope and
level of optimism, we might attribute it to a growing skepticism here,
one certainly fueled by the Depression, as to the transformative prom-
ise of the technological. Even prior to the Depression’s onset, though,
we can glimpse some of that skeptical attitude in MGM’s ambitious pro-
duction The Mysterious Island (1929) [Fig. 34]. A costly production,
thanks to its use of two-strip Technicolor, complex model work, and ef-
forts to integrate a few sound sequences into a largely silent narrative,
The Mysterious Island returned to the work of Jules Verne for its story
about an aristocratic inventor who builds a pair of submarines with
which, a jealous politician tells him, one could easily “rule the world.”
After discovering a hostile underwater civilization and defeating the
politician’s efforts at taking over the kingdom, the inventor sinks his
remaining submarine and goes down with it so that no one else might
88 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

Figure 35. The scientist manipulates animal genes to produce human simu-
lacra in Island of Lost Souls (1933).

be tempted to misuse these seductive powers. An even more promis-

ing power surfaces in the film Six Hours to Live (1932), when an assas-
sinated diplomat is brought back to life by a newly developed rejuve-
nating machine. Its resuscitating power, though, lasts no more than six
hours – just enough time for the diplomat to negotiate an important
treaty, find his own murderer, and, as in The Mysterious Island, destroy
the fantastic device – in this case so that no one else will have to en-
dure what he assures us is the agony of living with the full knowledge
that one is already and unavoidably dead. Although the focus here is
less on the scientist/inventor than on the spectacular concept of the
death-cheating device,37 this film too hesitates to endorse its miracu-
lous technology fully and thereby suggests the still rather hesitant em-
brace of science and technology in this era. Instead, it emphasizes a
point that would increasingly resound in another group of science fic-
tion films: There are things humanity is simply better off not knowing.

Figure 36. Genre-straddling films: Mainstays of horror, Bela Lugosi and Boris
Karloff, struggle for scientific power in The Invisible Ray (1936).

This motif surfaces most frequently in the genre-straddling horror–

science fiction films that generally dominate the American branch of
the genre in this era. Films such as Frankenstein (1931), Island of Lost
Souls (1933), Mad Love (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), and Dr. Cyclops
(1940), among many others, return to that archetypal science fiction
impulse of the overreacher, the Faustian figure who effectively barters
his soul for knowledge, a knowledge that is often embodied in a techno-
logical device that holds a potential for both human benefit and human
horror. Frankenstein, along with its many sequels into the next decade,
emphasizes the figure who stands at the border between the normal
world and the unknown – but with the knowledge and the necessary
technology to cross over. This trespass is effected either by creating a
living creature from parts of dead bodies (Frankenstein), by surgically
manipulating animals to produce simulacra of humans (Island of Lost
Souls) [Fig. 35], by reshaping the body through synthetic flesh (Doc-
tor X, 1932), by transplanting parts from one body into another (Mad
Love), by experimenting with the effects of radioactivity on the human
body (The Invisible Ray) [Fig. 36], or by technologically altering the size
90 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

of fellow human beings (The Devil Doll, 1936; Dr. Cyclops). The mon-
strous creations that typically result from this boundary crossing,
as well as the sort of monstrous transformation – and almost as often,
the agonizing death – that coincidentally occurs in the scientist fig-
ures, serve as warning signs of the dangers involved in that movement
across the knowledge barrier. While such films often seem essentially
horrific in intent – thanks in great part to their emphasis on striking
makeup effects, their visual designs that often recall the distorted,
nightmarish world of German expressionist cinema, and their frequent
reliance on the reaction shot–subjective shot pairing that had already
become a cliché of the horror genre – their more essential suggestion
is one of scientific and technological caution. In the midst of the Ma-
chine Age’s emphasis on science and technology, and on how they
might make life more efficient, provide us with new houses and even
cities in which we would live and work, make both life and work more
efficient, and fundamentally transform our lives [Fig. 37], these science
fiction–horror films stand as a kind of cultural subconscious, articulat-
ing in a variety of ways both the surface skepticism of Depression-era
audiences and the deeper qualms that attended our entry into the
“brave new world” of science and technology.

The Serials
On the conscious level, and with seemingly little desire to pull back
from this promise, the serials, as we have already briefly noted, seem
to offer a rather different vantage in approximately the same period.
The serial, although certainly popular during the silent era, and often
containing science fiction elements – as in works featuring Pearl White
(see especially The Perils of Pauline, 1914) and Harry Houdini (The Mas-
ter Mystery, 1919) in the United States or actor-director Harry Piel in
Germany, or those directed by Louis Feuillade (Judex, 1916) in France
– became far more prominent in the 1930s and 1940s, in great part be-
cause of shifting viewing/exhibition practices.38 With the coming of the
Depression, motion picture producers and exhibitors, in an effort to
draw people back to the theaters, put more emphasis on creating a full
program for moviegoers, one in which short subjects and/or serials
were often featured. That emphasis continued throughout the war
years and immediately after, as the serial, with its weekly cliffhanger
episodes, was seen as a way of regularizing moviegoing. Moreover, its

Figure 37. Genre-straddling films: El Brendel appreciates the fashions of the

future in the comic musical science fiction film Just Imagine (1930).

frequent recourse to the iconography of science fiction provided a type

of visual excitement found in few conventional features of the era.
In one of the few serious commentaries on this form, John Baxter
suggests that, throughout their history, the serials “represent the clear-
est manifestation of that vein of childish primitivism which drew the
first cinéastes to Méliès. The world of the serials is the world of child-
hood, with its fascination with passwords, costumes and secrets for
their own sake.”39 But the serials were also, particularly from the 1930s
into the 1950s, very often concerned with the figures, subjects, and typ-
ical situations that science fiction literature was casting into the pop-
ular light. In fact, even when science fiction practically disappears from
the Hollywood feature film in the 1940s, the serials keep the genre cin-
ematically alive and thereby serve an important generic function,
working variations on and sustaining interest in its semantic and syn-
92 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

Figure 38. The first Flash Gordon (1936) serial: Dr. Zarkov, Dale Arden, and Flash
are taken prisoner by the Emperor Ming’s guard.

tactic components. Obviously, the Flash Gordon [Fig. 38] and Buck Rog-
ers serials stand firmly within this science fiction camp, even if they
suggest its more juvenile aspects, such as the simple sense of wonder
that Baxter describes. Perhaps more intriguing from a historical stand-
point, though, is the extent to which most of the serials, regardless of
their nominal genres, seem almost universally technologically inflect-
ed, and thus the way in which they not so subtly suggest a developing
scientific spirit and fascination throughout this era. Televisions, rocket
ships, flying wings, ray guns, guided missiles, mind-control machines,
flying suits, alien invaders, and especially robots show up not only in
“pure” science fiction narratives such as the three Flash Gordon films,
King of the Rocket Men (1949), and Radar Men from the Moon (1951),
but also practically across the generic register. Certainly, the various
crime-fighter serials, such as Dick Tracy (1937) and The Shadow (1940),
spy stories like Flying G-Men (1939) and Spy Smasher (1942), and tales
of lost civilizations, such as The Lost City (1935) and The Undersea King-

Figure 39. The mixed action of the serials: The cowboy Gene Autry in The Phan-
tom Empire’s (1935) futuristic city of Murania.

dom (1936), offer enough of the typical icons and actions of science fic-
tion to blur any generic boundaries we might normally expect to find.
Even many of the western serials, a form we might assume to be more
historically grounded in a pretechnological era, often anachronistically
involve their characters in car chases, airplane flights, and the use of
other Machine Age technologies. A film like The Phantom Empire (1935)
[Fig. 39] suggests how far that boundary blurring might go with its star-
ring of the singing cowboy Gene Autry in a preposterous yet psycho-
logically compelling mix of science fiction, musical, and western ele-
ments that have him, by turns, driving a stagecoach, singing on the
radio while piloting an airplane, and fending off the robots of the scien-
tific kingdom of Murania, all while trying, detectivelike, to solve a mur-
der for which he has been framed. Like so many other serials, it was
simply able to suggest that much of contemporary life might be seen
within a technological – and thus science fictional – context.
94 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

If the serial’s life span was effectively cut short by the advent of tele-
vision with its series format and, in its earliest days, often similar sub-
jects, it does serve as an important cultural signpost, particularly for
the development of a science fiction cinema. The film serial appears
at a moment in American cultural history when the very components
of such serialized storytelling had begun to take on a new resonance,
when a technological or machine-consciousness was becoming perva-
sive, and our imaginative texts were following suit. In her study of the
literature of the Machine Age, Cecelia Tichi argues that throughout the
era we find that the typical narrative does not only “contain represen-
tations of the machine – it too is the machine.”40 The serial, with its rap-
id, efficient, if often repetitious approach to narrative was itself very
machinelike. A fairly rigid formula dominated, as characterization be-
came incidental, narrative development gave way to the sheer power
of repetition, and the cliffhanger endings that never seemed to be real
endings predictably created thrills. With each episode of the serial
closing in much the same way, as the protagonist, a helper, or love in-
terest was placed in harm’s way, and with each succeeding episode re-
prising the deadly circumstances only to reveal an unforeseen escape,
audiences were treated to a fast-paced, predictable, and precise expe-
rience that underscored the films’ seriality. They thereby structurally
evoked some of the same attractions then helping to project science
fiction literature into the popular consciousness.
At the same time, the serial drew together a variety of iconic and
thematic science fiction influences from radio, the comics, the pulps,
and feature films. They seemed, in effect, to capture a sense of how sci-
ence and technology were becoming pervasive influences in this era,
joining a serious interest in our ability to engineer our culture and a
popular-culture fascination with the sheer spectacle and power bound
up in the latest technology. Though their narratives were typically sim-
plistic, then, the serials, whether depicting cowboys, gangsters, explor-
ers, or space travelers, managed to embody and depict the influence
that the material of science and technology was beginning to wield on
modern American culture – an influence that would soon make science
fiction arguably the most important of American film genres.41

Springtime for Caliban

In the era following World War II, in what has come to be known as the
Atomic Age, we can begin to gauge the strength of this quickly develop-

ing generic influence. In fact, as John Baxter offers, during the 1950s, a
period he dubs “Springtime for Caliban,” science fiction would become
“one of the hottest propositions in Hollywood.”42 Early in this period,
attendant with a shift in the production–distribution–exhibition pat-
terns of the American film industry, the serial would practically dis-
appear from the cinema, although its spirit would live on for a time in
such early television series as Captain Video (first televised in 1949
and, in a unique development attesting to its popularity, itself adapted
as a film serial in 1951), Tom Corbett: Space Cadet (which debuted in
1950), Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1953; edited into a series of feature
films in 1954), and The Adventures of Superman (appearing in 1953 and
drawing on the comics, a serial, and an earlier feature film, Superman
and the Mole Men, 1951). Though such examples of early television sci-
ence fiction were generally limited by a combination of budgets, time
constraints, and technical considerations, a show like Tom Corbett did
make some effort at special effects by superimposing various animated
creatures with live action, and sought a level of believability by employ-
ing as a technical advisor the German rocket pioneer Willy Ley, who
had worked with Fritz Lang on his Woman in the Moon (1929). Perhaps
more important, these shows demonstrated that science fiction could
work on the small screen, and they set the stage for later and far more
ambitious television programming in the genre, as represented by such
series as The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and especially Star Trek – all
of which at various times drew on quality scripts by established sci-
ence fiction authors.
On the big screen, science fiction would generally look radically dif-
ferent from its television counterpart, thanks to the increasing use of
Technicolor, Cinemascope, and 3-D technologies, all of which were
supposed to suggest how very different the film industry’s offerings
were from those of television – and implicitly, how much better they
were as well. Besides this technical effort at product differentiation, the
cinema by and large also took on more ambitious subject matter: alien
invasions, various sorts of fallout due to atomic experimentation or
warfare, and space exploration – story types that generally recall Ed-
ward James’s formal division of mainstream science fiction literature
into stories of the future, stories of science, and stories of extraordi-
nary voyages.43
If the content of many of these early cold-war films ultimately seems
to offer little more ideological complexity than could be found in the
era’s television programming or even the late serials, the best of them
96 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

Figure 40. Articulating cold-war anxieties about nuclear warfare and invasion:
The War of the Worlds (1953).

established that science fiction, whether in film or in the mainstream

literature of the genre, could prove an important vehicle for articulat-
ing cultural anxieties and for commenting in a serious way on those
concerns. Sharing many characteristics with such serial antecedents
as The Purple Monster Strikes (1945) and Radar Men from the Moon,
alien-invasion films were particularly plentiful, and, seen in retrospect,
seem to represent both some of the best work of the genre in this pe-
riod and some of its lowest points. While films like The Thing from An-
other World (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the
Worlds (1953) [Fig. 40], It Came from Outer Space (1953), and Invasion
of the Body Snatchers (1956) seem a natural accompaniment to the
wave of UFO sightings of the late 1940s and early 1950s, they addition-
ally mark major achievements in the science fiction cinema, thanks to
their special-effects standards, accomplished scripts, and complex
concerns. They also provide us, as Peter Biskind has noted, with a re-

Figure 41. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) urges peaceful coexistence on
a violent Earth.

vealing barometer of the era’s troubled political climate. “Precisely be-

cause it was so thoroughly removed from reality, so well insulated by
its own peculiar conventions,” he suggests, the science fiction film “af-
forded more freedom” for social commentary than most other genres,
sometimes even skating a bit “close to the edge of permissible dis-
Thus, on the one hand, we find films that play upon our cultural
fears of communist infiltration and of a cataclysmic world war, that
emphasize the need for watchfulness and preparation against alien
subversion of all types, as in the case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers
and its narrative of alien seed pods silently producing duplicates of us
and gradually taking over the country. On the other hand, we encoun-
ter a work like The Day the Earth Stood Still [Fig. 41], which used its vis-
itation by a peaceful but demonstrably more powerful and advanced
alien effectively to mock Earth’s cultural differences and urge a doc-
98 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

trine of peaceful coexistence, not only on this planet but throughout

the universe. Drawing on this same cold-war paranoia are films that
seem to represent the other qualitative extreme of the genre in this era.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), for example, despite Ray Harryhau-
sen’s state-of-the-art stop-motion destruction of Washington, offers lit-
tle more than a bad-alien-versus-good-Earthling plot – one that would
be suitably lampooned more recently in the science fiction satire Mars
Attacks! (1996). Lacking even the saving grace of such special effects,
though, is a film like The Giant Claw (1957), whose incredible plot cen-
ters on a giant buzzard from outer space, equipped with its own pro-
tective force field, capable of supersonic flight, and bent on human de-
struction. Still, in their own ways, both the best and worst of these
alien-invasion films offered audiences a measure of reassurance – if
nothing more, that we could cope with any external threat – although
they also usually accompanied that note with a humbling reflection of
the fragile nature of our civilization and even of our own species.
Striking a more urgent cautionary note are those films that imagine
various sorts of fallout from the bomb, atomic testing, or even nuclear
war. With the various mutants, awakened monsters, and world cata-
clysms envisioned in such films as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
(1953) [Fig. 42], Them! (1954), The Day the World Ended (1956), Godzilla,
King of the Monsters (1956), The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Incredible
Shrinking Man (1957), On the Beach (1959), Dinosaurus (1960), Voyage
to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), and Crack in the World (1965), along with
many others, the genre would well earn the description Susan Sontag
applied to it, “The Imagination of Disaster.” In some cases pointedly
created by the effects of radioactive fallout and in others brought back
to life by atomic testing or some metaphoric substitute, the various
beasts these films envision – ants, spiders, crabs, octopi, dinosaurs –
typically seem drawn to our modern cities, where they proceed to car-
ry out nature’s revenge on a reckless, environmentally heedless human
culture. Those disastrous encounters, though, pale in comparison to
the potential for calamity suggested in a variety of other apocalyptic
films, suggesting the possible destruction of Earth, or at least the ex-
tinction of its human inhabitants, as a result of nuclear war, of atomic
testing igniting the radiation belt surrounding the planet, or scientific
tinkering that creates a “crack in the world.” Along with films that warn
of the effects of all sorts of scientific experimentation on our individual
makeup – The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Amazing Colossal Man
(1957), The 4D Man (1959) – the various mutant and monster films of

Figure 42. Nuclear nightmares envisioned, with the help of Ray Harryhausen’s
stop-motion animation, in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953).

the 1950s and 1960s amply attest to the troubled attitudes toward sci-
ence and technology in our culture. In an age that has come to be iden-
tified with its unleashing of the atom and the great power associated
with that development, American science fiction films, as well as those
of Japan and England, repeatedly play out for us “what-if” scenarios,
fantasies of the consequences of that unleashing – few of them re-
The more positive side of science and technology in this era seems
reserved for the various films that deal with space exploration. Build-
ing upon Fritz Lang’s early effort in this vein, Woman in the Moon, and
its efforts at authenticity achieved by employing the top rocket experts
of Germany in his day, American films such as Destination Moon (1950),
Rocketship X-M (1950), The Conquest of Space (1955), Forbidden Planet
(1956), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and, of course, 2001: A Space
Odyssey (1968), among others, envision extraordinary voyages that, in
100 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

various ways, signal a hope for human development (even our neces-
sary evolution, as 2001 argues) through the powers of science and
technology. Although the similarly plotted Rocketship X-M beat it to the
screen by a few weeks, Destination Moon merits special mention for its
relatively accurate and convincing depiction of a moon expedition.
Drawing on producer George Pal’s experience with animating models
(for his series of “Puppetoons” of the 1940s), effective matte paintings
by the astronomical artist Chesley Bonestall, previously mentioned,
and the technical expertise of German rocket expert Hermann Oberth
(who had worked on Lang’s film), Destination Moon was the first color
science fiction film, won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects,
and proved so profitable that it spawned a number of imitators, all em-
phasizing the power of our technology to serve a larger human aspi-
ration – a kind of collective desire for exploration and knowledge that
would soon be played out on a larger scale in the very real space race
of the 1950s and 1960s. In that same spectacular vein, Forbidden Planet,
shot in Technicolor and Cinemascope, and sporting the first electronic-
music sound track, depicts the work of the planetary star cruiser C57D,
as it anticipates the injunction with which the television series Star
Trek would later make us familiar, by exploring new worlds and rescu-
ing the survivors of an earlier Earth expedition to the planet Altair IV
[Fig. 43]. On that planet the crew encounters one of the most resonant
concepts of the science fiction genre, a technology left by the planet’s
original inhabitants that allows one to duplicate anything one might
imagine. This power of “creation by mere thought,” as one character
puts it, also managed to unleash “the secret devil of every soul on the
planet”; from the genie of technological duplication there came forth
unpredictable “monsters from the Id,” projections of the repressed self
that had led to that civilization’s self-annihilation. With the eventual
destruction of the planet and C57D’s return to its space journey, we see
how the extraordinary voyage film could also function as a warning, an
admonition against letting that same desire for exploration and knowl-
edge simply go unchecked.
In what remains a landmark film because of its complex special ef-
fects and epic scope, 2001: A Space Odyssey, we can see a fitting cap
for the era’s stories of space exploration, as well as a forecast of more
recent developments in the genre. By meshing a computer-controlled
camera with some of the most painstaking model work in film history,
director Stanley Kubrick fashioned a film that followed the documen-
tary-style path of Destination Moon and The Conquest of Space, as well

Figure 43. Affirming technology in the conquest of space – the robot-controlled

star cruiser of Forbidden Planet (1956).

as afforded audiences a visual experience that made good on the fun-

damental promise of all fantasy, which, as Rosemary Jackson reminds,
quite literally means “that which is made visible.”46 In many ways a re-
turn to the mythic substrate of science fiction – and one that prepares
the way for another set of such myth-influenced works in the next dec-
ade, the Star Wars saga – 2001 uses an epic voyage “To Infinity and Be-
yond,” as the last of its three sequence titles offers, to develop a larger
story of human evolution. That narrative begins with a stirring image
of Earth, the moon, and the sun in alignment, a triadic image that
points toward the three-part structure that follows. That structure
opens with the story of Earth, entitled “The Dawn of Man,” a glimpse
of humanity’s animal origins, a world of violence ruled by the senses,
instinct, and the law of survival. With the appearance of a mysterious
monolith, a black slab that resembles a door, we open onto a world
ruled by a newfound rational capacity, one in which humanity learns
102 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

to use tools to aid in its survival and to project its power beyond the
planet. However, with what remains one of the most effective transi-
tions in film history – a match cut of a bone thrown into the sky that
becomes a space station in the blackness of space – 2001 cautions
against any easy assumptions about human development, as it sug-
gests that, even in the year 2001, we remain simply at “the dawn of
man,” still tossing our technology, albeit of a more complicated sort,
into the sky. The film’s second sequence, “Jupiter Mission,” draws its
inspiration from the key image of the moon, which from the time of the
ancient Greeks had been associated with the power of reason. On the
moon our astronauts have also discovered a monolith, the mysterious
presence of which precipitates a journey to trace its origin, to seek out,
as it were, the source of our intelligence. That journey, however, is
strictly governed by an emblem of our reasoning power: the suppos-
edly foolproof HAL 9000 computer, which suffers a failure and nearly
destroys the mission. Only the ability of the last surviving astronaut of
the Jupiter Mission to disconnect HAL – in essence, to disconnect him-
self from a reliance on reason alone – allows the ship to enter through
the “stargate,” the door into humanity’s future.47 The stargate, which
has been described as resembling a drug-inspired hallucinatory vision
– an imagery hardly uncommon in 1960s films – opens onto a purely
abstract visual realm, one defying representation and simple rational-
ization, but culminating in a series of jump cuts that depict the astro-
naut Dave Bowman repeatedly turning to see himself at later stages in
life, his aging seemingly instantaneous within the larger context of hu-
man change. With this evolutionary tale, coscripted by the novelist
Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick created what may well be the ultimate ex-
traordinary voyage narrative, as well as arguably the most important
film in the American science fiction tradition.

Other science fiction films of the 1960s and the following decade would
generally shift gears, turning away from both the fantastic voyage and
that “imagination of disaster” to examine how the latest developments
in science and technology might affect human identity. Certainly, 2001’s
HAL 9000 computer, which serves as both caretaker and undertaker for
its human charges, points the way in this development, which was also
propelled by increasing headlines about the development of artificial
intelligence and the first efforts at introducing robotics into the work-

Figure 44. Giving a human shape to technology in the robot-preparation ward

of Westworld (1973).

place. Films like Seconds (1966), Westworld (1973) [Fig. 44] and its se-
quel Futureworld (1976), The Terminal Man (1974), The Stepford Wives
(1975) and its made-for-TV sequels, and especially Demon Seed (1977)
all reflect our increasingly troubled sense of identity by exploring how
we might be enhanced, reconfigured, and ultimately even replaced by
the products of our science. Demon Seed offers a particularly unset-
tling vision of what might eventuate from modern society’s rush to em-
brace the computer and hand over to it the running of our day-to-day
lives. Here a woman’s experimental use of a computer to run her do-
mestic affairs ends with the machine’s imprisoning her, raping her,
and by impregnating her producing its own “half-breed” progeny with
which it plans to populate and take over Earth. The result is a very spe-
cific sort of technophobic vision that has become far more dominant
in the American science fiction film in recent years as it has continued
to respond to the impact of the computer and artificial intelligence on
our lives.
104 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

Only slightly less prominent among the concerns of our science fic-
tion films in this era are those about the environment. Among the is-
sues that surface in films like Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green
(1973), Logan’s Run (1976), the Planet of the Apes (1968) series, and
several of the Star Trek films are two that we might place under the
heading of environmental matters: threats to the environment and
threats to the human species itself. Of course, the two concerns are in-
terrelated, although the precise links between a devastated world and
an ongoing and carefully planned extermination of humans – often as
part of an effort at controlling the population so as to ensure sufficient
resources for all – are often only implied. Silent Running, which draws
upon the special-effects work of Douglas Trumbull, who was respon-
sible for much of 2001’s fantastic imagery, most directly addresses the
ecological issue in its story about a space caretaker of an orbiting
greenhouse holding samples of the foliage that had once flourished on
Earth, prior to a catastrophic war. Defying politicians’ efforts to elim-
inate his greenhouse, the caretaker sends it drifting into space, tended
by his robotic helpers (who would reappear a few years later in an
homage scene in Star Wars, 1977), as a living monument to our once-
green planet. Soylent Green, winner of a Nebula Award for the Best Sci-
ence Fiction Film of 1973, focuses more precisely on the human issue
of ecology, particularly on the problems of overpopulation and the
overstressed capacity of the planet to feed its inhabitants. The narra-
tive’s revelation that our disregard for the planet’s fragile ecological
balance might produce a kind of secret cannibalism serves as a meta-
phor for our current condition, one in which we are already unwittingly
in the process of destroying ourselves, consuming our fellow humans
to maintain some semblance of a status quo. In these and a number of
other works throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, works that
repeatedly were set against the backdrop of a devastated environment,
our filmmakers were obviously trying to work out a troubling paradox:
that the very technologies we had embraced to make life more con-
venient, more efficient, more pleasurable were contributing in ways we
had only begun to measure to the very destruction of our way of life
through air and water pollution, deforestation, the eradication of nat-
ural habitats, and the extinction of other species. As these films attest,
the science fiction genre had pointedly become a popular and effective
vehicle for addressing important cultural concerns, even ones that, in
various ways, offered a subversive view of the status quo.

A New Myth
We would also see a kind of recoil in the genre, what some might de-
scribe as a conservative turn away from these overtly political and
ideologically laden stories, as the genre made its greatest capital by
harking back to its mythic origins. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the
science fiction film refigured itself powerfully as an epic vehicle, thanks
largely to the efforts of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Of course,
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had anticipated this trend, with its
vision of human and cosmic change, realized through state-of-the-art
special-effects techniques and a narrative trajectory that dissolves the
immediate moment in the sea of evolutionary history. However, Lucas’s
Star Wars saga, comprised thus far of Star Wars (1977), The Empire
Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983) [Fig. 45], and Star Wars:
Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), more fully suggests the nature
of this shift in the genre with its heavy reliance on computer-aided ef-
fects, its straightforward narrative of heroic endeavors, and its avoid-
ance of immediate cultural issues. In this saga Lucas too set events at
a far remove from human history, thanks to Star Wars’s opening scroll
title – now easily quoted by practically all moviegoers – announcing
that what follows occurred “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,”
while also indicating its indebtedness to the imagery, character types,
and, some might argue, the world view shared by the serials of the
1930s and 1940s, which typically opened in the same way. Furthermore,
with that scroll opening, recalling the start of so many serial episodes,
Star Wars also announces something more: that it is, in effect, an hom-
age to a great number of films and film types – the western, war films,
Japanese samurai films – all of which have contributed to Lucas’s
vision here, as well as to the collective cinematic unconscious of his
intended audience. It marks, however modestly, the stirrings of a post-
modern pastiche influence that has increasingly characterized our sci-
ence fiction films, and that proves particularly prominent in The Phan-
tom Menace.
That remove from the particular suggested by this intertextuality
seems especially appropriate for the ensuing narrative, which is a ver-
sion of what mythographer Joseph Campbell terms the monomyth – an
archetypal and practically timeless story that relates a hero’s call to
action, his reluctant acceptance of the call, his penetration into an-
other world wherein he accomplishes great deeds, and his return to
106 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

his own world as a hero and adult, bringing boons to his people. These
films form the most successful body of work, in terms of box-office re-
turns, in the history of the genre, a point underscored and added to
when, on the series’ twentieth anniversary in 1997, the first three mov-
ies were rereleased with added footage and each work, in turn, became
the top-grossing film in the United States in the week of its rerelease.
We can further measure their importance in the way that the Star Wars
films inspired a number of successful imitations and parodies, pro-
duced a dedicated fan following (now actively discussing on the Inter-
net further additions to the series), and have entered into our collec-
tive consciousness, as we might see in the casual discussion about the
fate of the Death Star in a film like Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994). Equally
noteworthy is the way Lucas’s series has underscored the importance
to the American film industry of product tie-ins and licensing – an im-
portance that few major film projects, especially in the field of science
fiction, have since overlooked.
More down-to-Earth in concern, but still epic in scope and equally
shy of the sort of political consciousness glimpsed in the previous era’s
films is Steven Spielberg’s production Close Encounters of the Third Kind
(1977). This film, along with his later and even more successful effort
in the genre, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), brought the fantastic en-
counter with the alien other into middle America with its story of be-
nevolent space visitors calling ordinary people from throughout the
world and the heartland of America to a meeting at Devils Tower, Wyo-
ming. The narrative of that call and the protagonist Roy Neary’s des-
perate efforts to make contact, even at the cost of his family’s stability,
seems almost a case study in pop culture contrivance in the way it
cobbles together a great variety of current fascinations. As Andrew
Gordon well sums up the case, Close Encounters draws on a variety of
popular phenomena, including fundamentalist Christianity, pseudo-
religious cults, theories of the gods as visitors from outer space, and
belief in the Bermuda Triangle.48
Nevertheless, it does so effectively, moves us in spite of those almost
transparent contrivances, in part because of Spielberg’s own skills at
cinematic storytelling (amply illustrated in his subsequent films), but
also because this film too seems to tap a kind of mythic substrate.
Neary may be a little man with a rather mundane job as a power com-
pany worker, but he too falls into Campbell’s monomythic pattern of
the reluctant questor who accomplishes great deeds, and in the pro-
cess speaks to the common person’s unspoken desire for similar ac-

Figure 45. Return of the Jedi (1983): The Star Wars films offer a new mythology,
one compatible with the technological as embodied in the servile robots C3PO
and R2D2.

complishment and significance. Close Encounters may thus merit spe-

cial attention not so much for its skillful manipulations as for its ability
to reveal the fantastic dimensions of the quotidian, as well as the ex-
tent to which a popular audience is ready to accept that very other-
ness – an otherness almost literally embraced with Spielberg’s creation
of the cuddly and loving alien of E.T.
108 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

Postmodern Science Fiction

Another and what may ultimately be the most important effect of the
epic constructions of Lucas and Spielberg, then, was their demonstra-
tion that the science fiction film could once again be – as it had been
throughout the 1950s – a highly appealing and tremendously profitable
genre. As a result, a flood of science fiction films appeared in the early
1980s, some trying forthrightly to cash in on the patterns of these ma-
jor works (see especially a work like Jimmy Murakami’s Battle Beyond
the Stars [1980] and the television series Battlestar Galactica [1978]);
others, such as the various Star Trek films, exploring many of the same
concerns for an audience developed through television; and still oth-
ers opening up new and complex thematic issues. The most important
of the latter are those films that begin pursuing what would become,
well into the 1990s, the central concern of the science fiction genre –
the impact of machine intelligence and robotic automation. In this
period – which we might think of, following the theoretical lead of
the French critic Jean Baudrillard, as the era of the simulacrum – the
robot/cyborg/replicant/android assumes the central role in our films,
which set about exploring a dual possibility built into all of our techno-
logical imaginings: the ability of our technology to let us, in nearly god-
like fashion, craft images of ourselves, and the correspondent possibil-
ity that those creations, those emblems of our very power, might well
overpower us and take our place, as was first suggested in the play that
introduced the concept of the robot, Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (1923), and
as the two Terminator films (1984, 1991) probably most effectively il-
lustrate. In the many films that explore this dual potential, we both
celebrate our technologically driven might and recoil at its possible
implications – with each response the mirror image and seemingly in-
escapable concomitant of the other.
The key film in this development is undoubtedly Ridley Scott’s Blade
Runner (1982), with its story of genetically engineered “replicants,” de-
signed to serve as soldiers in place of humans, to work in inhospitable
environments, and, in the form of “pleasure models,” to satisfy our
most basic human desires [Fig. 46]. Set in a decaying urban landscape,
by now very familiar to readers of cyberpunk science fiction literature,
and drawing on the design and special effects expertise of Douglas
Trumbull (well established in science fiction thanks to his work on
such films as 2001, The Andromeda Strain [1971], Silent Running, Close
Encounters, and Star Trek – The Motion Picture [1979]), it examines the

Figure 46. Through its various “replicants,” Blade Runner (1982) poses trou-
bling questions about postmodern human identity.

ethics behind the creation of artificial life in the form of replicants who
have a programmed life span of only a few years and bear implanted
memories designed to keep them from an awareness of their construct-
ed existence. By paralleling those near-human creations to the cynical
and alienated bounty hunter (or “blade runner”) Rick Deckard, the film
poses questions about the level of our own humanity in an increasing-
ly technologized and life-hostile environment.
Indeed, the proliferation of the image of human artifice in films that
would follow Blade Runner suggests that this figure has become a key
cautionary trope for our culture. We might consider, for example, a
scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day wherein a “terminator” cyborg
from the future lectures a group of humans about the implications of
his creation. He begins his story by cutting open his arm to reveal a
bloody mechanism underneath, gestures with his newly revealed met-
al digits to his horrified human audience, and then admonishes them,
110 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

“Now listen to me very carefully.” The message he offers is one that re-
sounds throughout films of this era – in works such as Android (1982),
Killbots (1986), the RoboCop series (1987, 1990, 1993, as well as its TV
series spin-off), both Terminator films, the Australian Hardware (1990),
and many others – reminding us of the difficulties and dangers we face
as we set about forging not only a truly technological culture but also
a thoroughly technologized humanity. It seems that, in crafting ever
more perfect imitations of the self and in placing the technological at
the very center of our world, we increasingly risk, as the philosopher
Robert Romanyshyn has argued, becoming little more than spectators
of our world, “ensconced behind” the window of technology and with
no real place in this world that we continue, ghostlike, to inhabit.49

Science Fiction and Gender

In another vein the robotic image has built upon this sense of neces-
sary cultural awakening to raise some specific questions that have be-
come especially crucial to contemporary American society. Particu-
larly, this image of the crafted body has proven extremely useful for
exploring a variety of concerns raised by the women’s movement, es-
pecially the extent to which gender itself might be seen as a cultural
construct. Early on in The Stepford Wives and its sequels, and later in
such works as Cherry 2000 (1987) [Fig. 47], Frankenhooker (1990), Steel
and Lace (1990), and Eve of Destruction (1991), we find the figure of a
female robot or cyborg used to interrogate our preconceived and cul-
turally sanctioned notions of gender identity, function, and ability. In
this development our science fiction films have certainly paralleled in-
terests found in nongenre features and in a wealth of contemporary lit-
erature; but in their emphases on the details of these bodies’ physical
construction, on their limited functions, and on a controlling software,
the science fiction films have managed to bring into mainstream con-
sciousness (and even provided that consciousness with a useful set of
metaphors for) many of the most prominent issues raised by feminist
and postmodern theory – particularly concerns with a culture of beau-
ty, with limited, culturally determined opportunities for women, and
with the invisible ideological controls that, they would argue, effective-
ly preprogram feminine aspirations and even a woman’s sense of self.
This sense of the gendered self as a cultural construct – a notion liter-
alized much earlier in films like The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and
the British effort The Perfect Woman (1949) – has proven one of the
Figure 47. Two versions of the cultural construction of gender: (top) The cre-
ation of the robot Maria in Metropolis (1926); (bottom) repairing the perfect
robotic mate in Cherry 2000 (1987).
112 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

more important political developments of the contemporary science

fiction film.
A further implication of this notion has surfaced in a number of films
that explore how science and technology have assisted in that con-
structive process by appropriating a part of traditional feminine iden-
tity: usurping or controlling the very power of procreation. Works like
the two Species films (1995, 1998), Gattaca (1997), and Mimic (1997) all
update the early science fiction concern with creation found in a work
like Frankenstein, as they foreground the contemporary issue of genet-
ic engineering and in each case explore how women might be removed
from the decision-making processes of conception and birth or find
their decisions compromised by a male-controlled genetic technology.
The Species films are especially illustrative here, for they postulate a
full control over not only the process of conception but also the struc-
ture of our DNA. In the first of the series, a team of scientists receives
a message from an alien culture that includes information on splicing
human DNA with that of the alien species. In undertaking this risky and
certainly ethically questionable experiment, the lead scientist explains
that he has decided to make this hybrid creature feminine because she
would prove “more docile,” easier to control; yet the resulting creature,
Sil, proves completely uncontrollable and quite dangerous, as she fol-
lows her natural instinct to breed and thus genetically replicate the
alien species on Earth. Unable to control her mating and fearing the re-
sults of conception, then, the scientists track down and eventually de-
stroy this new feminine species. In the second film a similar creature
has been genetically reengineered to retain the powers of her alien
species while remaining docile. The ubiquitous team of scientists then
uses her to help track down and destroy an astronaut who has been
infected with alien DNA and thus poses a similar threat to humanity.
Both films seem to be playing out a kind of allegory – one drawn with
the broadest of strokes – about male anxieties over control of a new
kind of woman, one who promises to propagate others like herself and,
in the process, recast human society along nontraditional gender lines.

The Anime Influence

Drawing on many of these same concerns and often foregrounding the
image of a human artifice is a new tradition in the science fiction film,
one that has in its turn inspired several American feature films, while
also creating its own dedicated fandom in the United States and else-

where. The Japanese animated film or anime, appearing in the form of

the feature film, television series, and direct-to-video release, reflects
many of the same concerns found in contemporary American science
fiction, such as the recurrent focus on robotics, artificial intelligence,
and the consequences of the unchecked development of these technol-
ogies. More specific to Japanese culture, the many works in this form
(often drawing on the latest advances in computer-assisted animation)
illustrate the country’s increasing wariness of its many technological
achievements and the direction those achievements seem to be signal-
ing for what remains, at its core, a rather traditional culture, as well as
an anxiety over how much the traditional Japanese sense of self is rap-
idly being reshaped, constructed, and controlled by a bewildering va-
riety of external forces. In this respect, they recall the various science
fiction monster films of the 1950s and 1960s, works such as the original
Godzilla (Gojira, 1954), Rodan (1956), and a host of others, which also
clearly responded to Japanese society’s fears of its past and future “fall-
out.” Anime, however, typically plays out these issues and anxieties
against a peculiar backdrop, one that draws simultaneously on medi-
eval Japanese traditions, on American cyberpunk styles, and on an im-
agery of ethnic and cultural mixture (of the sort envisioned in Blade
Runner) that never quite evokes any specific human society, but that in
various ways hints of the American dream of a multicultural society
and suggests the extent to which the American science fiction film has
become a key narrative type for much of contemporary culture.
Of the three typical and dominant subgenres of anime films – mecha,
romantic comedy, and horror fantasy50 – the first, with its emphasis on
machine-influenced transformations of society and of the individual,
most obviously bulks into the realm of science fiction; and indeed, the
successful Guyver anime series (1986, 1989, 1991) has inspired two
American live-action science fiction features, The Guyver (1991) and
Guyver: Dark Hero (1994). However, even the other two subgenres, with
their fantasy orientation, have in various ways overlapped into mecha
territory and quite often exploit the conventional imagery of science
fiction, while all three share a common focus on the sort of postmod-
ern issues of individuality and gender identification that, as already
suggested, have become commonplace in the American science fiction
cinema. In fact, in her overview of the form, Annalee Newitz suggests
that we see the whole field of anime as fundamentally “bound up with
gender identity.”51 Although that view probably makes for too narrow
a construction of the anime narrative, it does point to a larger, central
114 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

Figure 48. The Japanese anime influence: Apocalyptic imagery in Akira (1988).

anxiety to which all of these films, in kinship with the American science
fiction genre, seem to respond: their concern with the troubled state
of the postmodern self, a self that finds its gender, identity, even its
very human nature called into question by the new technological en-
vironment it inhabits and that seems to be inevitably reshaping our
Within the more specific confines of mecha anime, we should note
two particular trends that dominate and especially resonate in the con-
text of American science fiction film: first, works such as Appleseed
(1988), the Bubblegum Crisis series (1985), and Mobile Suit Gundam
(1981) that talk about various encrustations of the technological; and
second, films like Akira (1988) [Fig. 48] and Ghost in the Shell (1995)
that take as their focus crucial transformations of society and the indi-
vidual. In the former, power suits or robotic guises either are assumed
by humans or (and this narrative development seems especially telling
for cultural attitudes toward the technological) forcefully attach them-
selves to human hosts, in the process allowing those hosts to perform
superhuman feats – often to battle and defeat an antihuman or out-of-
control robotic technology, but often also at the cost of human control
[Fig. 49]. Such films dramatize the problematic relationship of what
Newitz terms “two radically different orders of being: human and ma-

Figure 49. The anime protagonist (Akira, 1988): Half-machine, half-human, liter-
ally a product of postmodern culture.

chine,”52 a concern that crops up repeatedly in American science fic-

tion films of recent vintage, but probably most notably in works like
Terminator 2 and The Matrix (1999). In the latter trend, we focus not so
much on external alterations as on internal changes, to the individual
or to society at large – changes that occur both because of and despite
our desires, changes that are irresistible, and changes whose ultimate
consequences (as we see especially in the case of Akira) remain inde-
terminable. It too is a pattern echoed in such contemporary American
films as the remake of The Fly (1986) and the recent examination of ge-
netic manipulation, Gattaca; yet the popularity of both film groups sug-
gests far more than, as Newitz suggests, that Americans “are . . . being
colonized by Japanese pop culture.”53 Rather, it underscores the extent
116 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

to which our world has become a kind of shared technological culture,

one that draws its life from technology, recognizes how much we all
participate in the dangers bound up in that technology, and worries
over the alterations that technology seems inevitably to impose on
both the self and our world.

Special Effects
The Japanese anime tradition also points us in a key direction for our
parting comments on science fiction film history. That is, it is obviously
a form that responds, in the way that our most effective generic texts
do, to the latest cultural and technological developments, as well as
to the anxieties with which they seem automatically freighted. More-
over, because of its reliance on the latest developments in computer-
assisted animation, it suggests the importance to the genre of another
history, that of the development of computerized special effects, which
have lately become crucial to the form’s development. Although trick
photography and image manipulation have always been central to cin-
ema’s fantastic visions – from Méliès’s editing tricks in A Trip to the
Moon (1902), to the stop-motion animation of The Lost World (1925),
to the computer-controlled linkage of models and cameras in Star Wars
(1977), to the creation of convincing digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park
(1993) – computer-generated imagery (CGI) is a relatively recent yet
also quickly dominant influence on the science fiction film.
The first significant work in this area stems from research done on
the graphics capabilities of the latest computers in places like Bell
Laboratories. It was followed, particularly in the mid-1970s, by its use
in a variety of short, experimental films and, to more popular recogni-
tion, in creating television commercials and animating logos.54 Appro-
priately, at approximately the same time that our films were starting to
focus on the issue of human artifice – with 1982’s Blade Runner, as we
have noted, the milestone work – the science fiction film began its own
technical alliance with the sort of artifice that breakthrough develop-
ments in computer graphics offered. That same year also saw the pre-
miere of Disney’s Tron (1982) [Fig. 50], which drew upon a Kray Super-
computer – the sort previously limited to military applications and
advanced scientific research – to visualize, in an interestingly reflexive
turn, what it might be like for a human to be sucked into the inner work-
ings of a computer and to be rendered the plaything of its godlike arti-
ficial intelligence [Fig. 51]. Shortly after, The Last Starfighter (1984) em-
ployed CGI to create a variety of animated spaceships and to depict

Figure 50. CGI (computer-generated imagery) first surfaces in the genre to

suggest the inside of a computer world – Tron (1982).

Figure 51. CGI combines with live action to produce a new kind of “animated”
figure in Tron (1982).

combat in space. Although neither film proved particularly successful

at the box office, we should probably find the fault not so much in the
computer animation itself but rather, as Mike Lyons has suggested, in
the fact that in both cases “the stories weren’t strong enough to back
up the visuals.”55
A more effective use of the virtually unlimited visual possibilities
available through CGI showed up in the more complexly plotted The
Abyss (1989), James Cameron’s tale of aliens hiding on the ocean floor.
This film used the new technique of “morphing,” or blending one image
118 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

into another – pioneered a year earlier in Ron Howard’s medieval fan-

tasy Willow – and with it won an Academy Award for best visual effects.
Shortly after, Cameron and his visual-effects technicians would dupli-
cate that achievement in a film that placed the CGI morphing effect at
the very center of its narrative, Terminator 2 (1991); for the key visual
effect of the film proved to be the ability of its liquid metal T-1000 Ter-
minator from the future to morph into and thus mimic anything with
which it comes into contact. That technique has since become a stan-
dard effect not only in contemporary science fiction cinema (see, e.g.,
Stargate, 1994; The Fifth Element, 1997; Alien Resurrection, 1997; Dark
City, 1998; and The Matrix), but across the whole spectrum of film and
video production.
The potential of CGI has also allowed filmmakers to turn to narrative
account one of the great promises of computer engineering, the cre-
ation of virtual realities. Already extensively used in architectural de-
sign, medical experimentation, military training, and elsewhere, virtual
reality harnesses the power of the computer to create a cyberspace,
filled with simulacra, into which one can be projected, there to manip-
ulate objects, explore areas, and experience things that might prove
too dangerous, difficult, costly, or simply forbidden in reality. Hav-
ing become a solid fixture of cyberpunk literature, virtual-reality ex-
periences have become popular attractions at science museums and
amusement parks, such as Walt Disney World, and have increasingly
shown up on television. Both the Star Trek: The Next Generation and
Star Trek: Voyager TV series, for example, feature a “holodeck” for the
amusement and distraction of the space travelers; that is, a virtual-
reality room or, as Janet Murray describes it, “a universal fantasy ma-
chine, open to individual programming: a vision of the computer as a
kind of storytelling genie in the lamp”56 – or perhaps as the ultimate
movie experience.
Virtual reality has also figured prominently in such films as The
Lawnmower Man (1992), Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (1996),
Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Virtuosity (1995), Dark City, The Matrix, and
The Thirteenth Floor (1999), among others. While each of these films
plays off of the attractions of the very otherness signaled by these elec-
tronic environments, of the fantastic difference they represent, each
also pulls back from the simulacrum, recognizing a danger in its seduc-
tive appeal. Of course, in such narratives we also see film coming face
to face with its own potential other, its own possible replacement, since
virtual-reality technology holds out the very near possibility of fulfill-

Figure 52. Apocalyptic scenarios of the 1930s and 1950s return for the new mil-
lennium in such films as Starship Troopers (1997).

ing what André Bazin had termed the informing dream of cinema – the
perfect reproduction of reality. It might be fruitful, therefore, to view
that narrative recoil not only as the sort of technophobic response we
so often encounter in our science fiction films, but also as a kind of in-
dustrial response to a potentially competitive medium, to the seeming-
ly limitless powers of reproduction and recreation bound up in the
computer and its multimedia applications.
One particularly noteworthy application of the seemingly boundless
capacity of CGI effects for “making visible” our almost unimaginable
fantasies has moved beyond this long fascination with artifice in a tell-
ing way. In fact, it marks a return to a territory first explored during the
Depression in such films as Deluge (1933) and S.O.S. Tidal Wave (1939),
and again during the cold-war years in works like When Worlds Collide
(1951) and The Day the World Ended, that of the apocalyptic disaster.
In Independence Day (1996) an alien civilization suddenly appears, ap-
parently intent on wiping out human civilization and, like interstellar
locusts, consuming all of our planet’s resources before moving on to
another doomed host. Starship Troopers (1997) [Fig. 52] builds upon
120 ❖ H I S T O R I C A L O V E R V I E W

this same impulse with its tale of interplanetary warfare, impelled by

asteroids sent to crash into Earth by the insect inhabitants of the dis-
tant planet Klendathu. With Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon (1998),
and several similar narratives, we see Earth’s inhabitants confronting
a seemingly inevitable end (a situation previously envisioned in Abel
Gance’s science fiction epic La Fin du monde [End of the World, 1931]
and the British film Meteor [1979]), one that all of their technological
attainments seem practically powerless to avert. Obviously linked to
the coming of the millennium (in much the way that the closing years
of the nineteenth century similarly saw a proliferation of literary works
on futuristic and apocalyptic themes), these films seem intent on sug-
gesting both the limits of our technological attainments and our ulti-
mate dependence on those same attainments. Indeed, in Deep Impact
the spaceship that, through a suicide mission, manages to save Earth
from an Extinction Level Event, as it is termed in the film, is named
Messiah. Significantly, in all of these films what makes that last-moment
technological salvation possible is something far more fundamental,
more human than any scientific creation – it is the coming together of
a group of individuals, of mismatched and unlikely heroes whose self-
lessness and imagination manage to overcome or work around the ini-
tial, and seemingly final, failures of their technology.
These works seem a most fitting cap, then, for the end of the millen-
nium, for a century of science fiction films, and even for this brief his-
torical overview; for in them we see brought into the foreground both
the fundamental tensions and the ultimate stakes in the human rela-
tionship to the technological that is a central part of the human story
and of our science fiction films. In the best traditions of the fantastic,
these disaster films draw upon the very technological foundations of
the cinema in order to “make visible” that which could be, even the un-
imaginable end of both humanity and all of its cinematic imaginings. If
the genre has, throughout its history, limned our strained relationship
to science and technology, one that, as Robert Romanyshyn explains,
at times leaves us feeling as if we were caught in a “dream of distance”
from our world and, at others, as if we were engaged in a necessary
journey of “understanding” that world,57 in these more recent works
it seems to capture both terms in that relationship and visualize their
connection. Of course, that accomplishment, that sort of dynamic vi-
sion, is what we might hope to find after a century of effort in a genre,
as well as a testament to just how well the fantastic has served the
American imagination.

Film Analyses
The Science Fiction Film
as Fantastic Text
THX 1138

n an essay comparing our utopian projections to the broader cat-
egory of ideology, Paul Ricoeur observes some fundamental sim-
ilarities. He begins on a somewhat negative note, suggesting that
we consider both utopian thinking and ideology “as deviant attitudes
toward social reality,” and utopianism especially as a kind of “escap-
ism,” concealing “under its traits of futurism the nostalgia for some
paradise lost.”1 In so doing he addresses a common criticism of most
utopian thinking, echoed as well in the work of Fredric Jameson: the
notion that our visions of utopias – or dystopias, for that matter2 – ulti-
mately risk producing a problematic relationship to our world because
of their “eclipse of praxis,”3 that is, the way such fantastic construc-
tions, much like any culture’s dominant ideology, too often distract us
from what might be done here and now. Nonetheless, he certainly does
not dismiss utopian schemes, but suggests that this “nostalgia” is use-
ful when properly approached, the desire for escape or alternative
structures a beneficial “pathology” if it can help us to interrogate the
prevailing conditions of our culture. While he lays this knotty relation-
ship of escapism and interrogation at the door of a vague function that
he terms the “cultural imagination,”4 the very irresolution of this issue
points to another, deeper difficulty with which Ricoeur and other com-
mentators on the utopian imagination typically struggle. It is, very sim-
ply, the difficulty of gauging that imagined world against any “social
reality,” and ultimately against the real itself – a problem only com-
pounded by the widespread contemporary feeling that reality seems
to have disappeared into a variety of cultural constructs.
This problematic relationship to the real also underlies our own
project here, that is, our consideration of such schemes – particularly
of utopian and dystopian film narratives – as variations on what Todor-
ov terms the fantastic proper; for the fantastic, that middle ground be-
tween the marvelous and uncanny, as Rosemary Jackson reminds us,
“is predicated on the category of the ‘real,’”5 and more specifically, on

❖ 123
124 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

disclosing a troubled relationship to and thereby questioning the real.

To do so, it deploys a kind of double strategy. As Todorov explains, on
the one hand, the fantastic text works to create “an integration of the
reader [or viewer] into the world of the characters”;6 that is, it offers
signs that lead us to accept that world as coterminous with our own.
In fact, it draws much of its power to affect us precisely from our recog-
nition that this world stands for ours, and that, by extension, we in-
habit it. On the other, it places us in a troubling relationship to that
world as well as our own, for it forces a “hesitation,” as it compels us
to “a kind of reading” wherein, given our normal sense of things, we try
to make sense of what appears to be a disturbing, fantastic reality.7 The
seeming instability of the narrative and our own resultant uncertainty
combine to upset our usual assumptions about the real and can easily
lead us to interrogate the very fabric of our world. On a more pragmat-
ic level, as Jackson offers, the fantastic text, insofar as it “betrays a dis-
satisfaction with what is,”8 also opens onto the politics of the genre,
onto a kind of cultural unease that is always implicit in the form and
that seems most obviously featured in our various utopian/dystopian
Certainly, that political dimension, with its own attendant hesita-
tions, seems very near the surface in the long literary tradition of uto-
pias and dystopias, a body of texts recognized and studied by literary
scholars long before it became associated with the broad stream of
science fiction. We can trace this lineage back to Plato’s Republic and
follow it through a range of works, some of which are typically seen
as quite outside the bounds of the science fiction genre – such as Sir
Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun
(1623), and Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1626) – and others of
which are viewed as central to the form’s development of its social di-
mension – and here we might especially mention Edward Bellamy’s
Looking Backward (1888), H. G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes (1899),
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell’s 1984
(1949), among others. In most cases, these texts set about offering a
positive model for social alteration. The Republic, for instance, written
in the wake of the Peloponnesian War, when much of the region around
Athens had been devastated, suggested a model for constructing the
ideal society (or reconstructing Greek society) – one based, as Lewis
Mumford explains, in such things as “a common physical standard of
living,” a common level of education, and a common set of beliefs.9 Of
course, in other cases they may fashion a negative model of what might

be, one intended to sound a warning about our cultural trajectory in

hopes of effecting some political or ethical solution. One of the most
prominent cases in point is Brave New World, which describes a soci-
ety in which the government controls practically every element of hu-
man existence: It engineers births in its state “hatcheries,” encourages
euthanasia for the old or disaffected, and provides the pleasures of
drugs and sex to distract its citizens from their condition. Whether as
model or warning, such texts speak of a fundamental impulse, one that
quite naturally flows into the mainstream of science fiction, to engineer
human society.
In either case, we should also note, such utopian and dystopian
works typically reveal two basic principles at their core. As Mumford
in his classic study of the utopian form explains, every such text, even
those that simply project a positive vision of tomorrow’s world, con-
veys “an implicit criticism of the civilization that served as its back-
ground,” while also working “to uncover potentialities that the existing
institutions either ignored or buried beneath an ancient crust of cus-
tom and habit.”10 In that element of criticism, predicated on a dissatis-
faction with the world as it is currently constituted and a belief in the
possibility of change, we can most clearly see the political dimension
of the utopian story; while from that other vantage, of a world of un-
discovered or interred potential, we can also glimpse something of that
underlying sense of the real itself, which these texts ultimately lay open
to interrogation.
Alhough of relatively short history in comparison to that long liter-
ary tradition of utopian/dystopian narratives, this subgenre of the sci-
ence fiction film has produced a number of significant works that point
even more directly to this problematic relationship to the real that
seems the most compelling characteristic of the fantastic proper.
Among this group we find several of the most noteworthy movies of
the genre, including Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), the H. G. Wells–
scripted Things to Come (1936), Logan’s Run (1976), Brazil (1986), two
versions of Orwell’s 1984 (1956, 1984), as well as lesser-known and rare-
ly seen films like The Mysterious Island (1929) and Just Imagine (1930).
In every case their strategy appears similar. On the one hand, these
utopian and dystopian tales find their greatest attraction in their pow-
er to visualize what could be, a fully imagined and convincing world,
one they must struggle to make seem real through, for example, elab-
orate model work, technologies clearly extrapolated from those of to-
day, and attention to the details of everyday life in a vastly altered ur-
126 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

ban context. On the other, however, they most often displace us from
the real, even toy with our convention-bound sense of reality as they
typically achieve this vision in a highly stylized fashion. Simply put, the
fantastic texture of these utopian/dystopian films typically seems to
implicate at every turn a troubled relationship to the real. Our ques-
tionings of society thus often become bound up with an unspoken sus-
picion about reality itself.
We can most easily glimpse this correlation in what are probably
the two most famous films of this type, and the two that have also most
directly influenced American film’s utopian/dystopian visions. Metrop-
olis, for example, offers a thoroughly worked out critique of futuristic
life, one that reflects the economic and cultural chaos that was post–
World War I Germany and responds to it by pushing the obdurate logic
of early twentieth-century capitalism to its self-destructive extreme.
Here society has divided itself into a working class and an elite, man-
agerial class, the one living underground, inhabiting slums, and tend-
ing the machines that make possible the comfortable life of the other,
privileged class, living aboveground; and when the workers can no
longer abide their repressed condition, they revolt, in the process de-
stroying the machinery that not only supports the upper world but
also maintains their own fragile conditions. The film shades this con-
ception in a starkly expressionist scheme: with heavy shadows, angu-
lar compositions, stylized character motions, a symbolic dominance of
things over people – all elements that detach this cinematic world from
any immediate connection to our own and, for many, undermine much
of its subversive power by translating its vision into an aesthetic fas-
cination. It is precisely that aesthetic fascination that seems to power
its American imitator, Just Imagine. In similar fashion, a later work like
the British Things to Come extrapolates from the very real interna-
tional tensions of its day (1936), looming threats of another world war,
and popular antimachine sentiments in British culture11 to describe a
decades-long conflict that reduces most of civilization to rubble yet
also opens the way for a new world order, one modeled on the techno-
cratic social vision of the film’s writer, H. G. Wells. Its vision of this new
order, though, is a starkly monumentalist one, marked at every turn
by an outsized and imposing relationship between that reconstructed
world and the human, a relationship that almost renders the human ir-
relevant. If slightly less obvious, this pattern no less characterizes a
more recent American effort in this vein like Logan’s Run with its trans-
parent cultural context drawn from post-Vietnam and post-Watergate

politics, all dressed out in near-psychedelic trappings that immediately

evoke the politics of the counterculture. In framing their futuristic vi-
sions in these stylized ways, such films always risk the dangers of that
“escapism” Ricoeur notes; for a major effect of their stylizations is to
reinscribe the fundamental question of reality, the sense of how our
notion of the real – which undergirds those ideological constructs on
which society depends – is always implicated in these “nostalgic” pro-
One way of accounting for this condition is to think of the utopian/
dystopian film as always a kind of protopostmodern text, albeit one
that does not necessarily share the full postmodernist sensibility. Its
postulating of a possible trajectory for human history, for example,
certainly runs counter to postmodernism’s predilection for denying
history; yet in its assault on the status quo and the manner in which
it couches that assault, this sort of film inevitably implicates the ques-
tion of the real in a postmodern – as well as a fantastic – manner. In the
very way it constructs another world and marks it off from our own,
stylistically signaling its otherness, the utopian/dystopian film fore-
grounds the constructed nature of all film worlds, their cultural status
as products of our celluloid “dream factories,” as well as that knotty
issue of involved critique and nostalgic escape on which Ricoeur fo-
cuses. Moreover, because this sort of narrative is typically set in some
future, marked – and supposedly enabled – by great technological ad-
vances, it additionally assumes a kind of reflexive posture shared by
most science fiction films, in terms of what Garrett Stewart terms their
persistent “videology,” an emphasis on the mechanics of visualization
that reveals the “more than ordinarily close collusion between cine-
matic illusionism and futuristic fantasy.”12 In such a context, the con-
nection between the cinematic utopian/dystopian text and the real can
begin to inflect the story itself. The ideological implications of that en-
visioned world, the one on which our critical commentary typically fo-
cuses, can shift valence to become little more than a function of the
text’s own attitude toward the real.

To bring this relationship into better focus and to offer an example of

fantastic science fiction, I want to turn to George Lucas’s film THX 1138
(1971), a dystopian narrative about life in a futuristic society that cap-
italizes precisely on this shift in valence. In fact, its production history
already suggests something of the difficulty of bringing the dream of
another world into reality. The film began as a student work entitled
128 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138: 4EB, done during Lucas’s first semester
of graduate film studies at University of Southern California. It won first
prize at the National Student Film Festival and garnered him some at-
tention from the film industry. While working for another USC alumnus,
Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas was encouraged to expand this short
work, and he set to work on a feature-length script. Coppola, agreeing
to produce the film, helped to arrange a finance and release deal with
Warner Bros., although one that brought Lucas a very modest working
budget of $750,000 and a schedule of just ten weeks. In response to
these limitations, Lucas set out “to make a kind of cinema vérité film
of the future.”13 Instead of shooting in a studio, he determined to do it
away from Hollywood on real locations, using twenty-two sites in the
San Francisco Bay area, including the Oakland Coliseum, the Marin
County Civic Center, and the tunnels of the then under-construction
Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority.14 While the resulting film with its
minimal dialogue and unobtrusive camera style certainly achieved that
desired realistic look, studio officials found it less than promising, and
audiences generally did not respond to it, in part because the film was
so solidly anchored in the real rather than the sort of fantastic world
typically associated with science fiction cinema.
Forecasting Lucas’s own conflict with the studio, the film’s plot fo-
cuses on a worker in a futuristic society who runs afoul of the author-
ities. In a world where sexual activity is banned, where drugs are used
to control the people, and where everyone looks the same, the worker
THX 1138 stops taking his daily medication and impregnates his room-
mate LUH 3417. As a result of this misconduct he undergoes a recondi-
tioning process and is thrown into prison, but with another inmate he
escapes and eludes a pursuing robotic police. Eventually he makes his
way out of this enclosed, hermetic world and, alone, reaches the out-
side, where he stands against the background of a setting sun. It is ulti-
mately a story of the struggle for freedom and of individual triumph,
albeit a triumph qualified by the loss of LUH and the unknown nature
of that world to which THX finally escapes.
If the plot itself is generally familiar, the film on the whole demon-
strates the interrogative potential of such utopian/dystopian narra-
tives. Certainly, it lays bare some of the more disturbing elements of
American cultural ideology – particularly an inherent racism, a deaden-
ing disjunction between the individual and his or her work, and a cap-
italist reduction of everything and everyone to bottom-line budgetary
numbers. Still, even as the film undertakes this sort of pathological in-

terrogation, it does so in a way that repeatedly opens onto the relation

between the utopia/dystopia and the real; for THX 1138 penetrates be-
yond the social conditions, as well as the ideology that informs and en-
ables those conditions, to remind us of the extent to which reality itself
can become the focus of such fantasies. In fact, the film sketches an en-
vironment akin to that which Paul Virilio has described in his account
of an ongoing refashioning of the human environment, what he terms
the pending “cinematic derealization”15 of our world, that is, the re-
placement of the real by a virtual reality. Lucas’s film seems intent on
cautioning about the sort of reality we buy into – today as well as for
the future – and thus about our own problematic human trajectory, our
seeming destiny, as Virilio puts it, “to become film.”16 Although any use
of the term “real” today typically produces some critical recoil, partic-
ularly within that postmodern context that would simply describe the
real as a kind of illusion or, more precisely, a cultural construct, a focus
on this notion might help us better to assess THX 1138’s fantastic vi-
sion and, in the process, to reconsider that knotty relationship that un-
derlies all of our cinematic utopian and dystopian visions and on which
they inevitably comment.
As I have suggested, on one level THX 1138 functions in precisely the
interrogative way we expect of our utopian/dystopian narratives, for
its futuristic vision consistently lays bare a series of representations
or ruling ideas that inform contemporary American culture. Here the
common worker, as exemplified by the title character THX (Robert Du-
vall), is a drugged-out drone, reduced to a number, removed from the
purpose or product of his labor, and closely monitored and controlled
by supervisors who can measure his respiration and heart rate, and
even induce “brain lock” to shut down his actions, as if he were simply
a machine that could be turned off at will. Racial “others” are present-
ed either as foul-smelling dwarfs who inhabit the “outer shell” of this
futuristic world or as black entertainers and holograms, substanceless
figures whose primary function seems to be entertaining or serving a
dominant white culture. Moreover, this futuristic society judges every-
one and every action by bottom-line economic considerations, as we
see when THX escapes from prison and is pursued only so far as the
government’s budgetary constraints allow. Through these figures and
situations Lucas’s film reveals a variety of class, racial, and economic
tensions that characterize life in late-industrial capitalist society, ten-
sions that most of our ideological representations, particularly our film
narratives, typically work to dissolve or dismiss.
130 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

In the tradition of films like Metropolis, Things to Come, and Logan’s

Run, all works that carefully stylize their futuristic worlds and, in the
process, set their reality at a safe aesthetic distance from our own, THX
1138 too reaches for a distinct visual scheme, a highly stylized rendi-
tion of this other place. However, instead of the sort of monumental
look we find to some degree in most utopian/dystopian films, it turns
in another direction, offering a stark simplicity: cubicles and bare walls
that frame the individual within severe rectangles, imprisoning the sub-
ject but also replicating the film frame itself and thereby rendering the
person as doubly a “screened” image. In a further development of this
design scheme, seen especially in the futuristic prison-without-walls
to which THX is consigned, it emphasizes horizonless, open space
that has the effect of reducing dimension, turning the self into a two-
dimensional figure. More pervasive, though building to a similar effect,
is the monochromatic color scheme. The constant white-on-white, re-
calling the initial descriptions of the future world in Huxley’s Brave New
World, not only suggests a sterile and lifeless world [Fig. 53], but also
diminishes the individual by making the subject blend into the back-
ground and again appear two-dimensional. Individuality and individu-
ation simply have no place here. The overall effect of this visual design
scheme is to consistently frame subjects in an abstract space, remov-
ing them from a conventionally real world and, in the process, reconfig-
uring them as part of a derealized environment.
In keeping with this effect, THX 1138 also brings into the foreground
the very role of representation here and its implications for future life;
for from its start this film manifests a kind of self-consciousness, evok-
ing the mechanism of the movies and asking us to consider the effects
of that mechanism. We see this impulse in the constant iconography
of video screens, computer terminals, and surveillance technology, in
the whole mechanics of reproduction on which the genre so often fo-
cuses. Of course, that sort of imagery hardly seems out of place here,
since such icons typically fill our science fiction narratives. As Garrett
Stewart notes, these various “mechanics of apparition,” through their
omnipresence, have indeed become a kind of generic signature.17 How-
ever, THX 1138’s opening pushes the issue by establishing this context
even before the narrative starts. Prior to the credits we see a clip from
a trailer for the 1939 Buck Rogers serial, a preview that further nests it-
self in a reflexive context as Buck and his companions view images on
a monitor that are lifted from the earlier utopian fantasy Just Imagine
(1930), itself modeled on Metropolis. These images represent more than

Figure 53. THX is trapped in the sterile, horizonless prison of the futuristic
world envisioned by THX 1138 (1971).

just an homage or generic context for what follows, as the trailer’s

voice-over commentary makes clear through several alterations and
emphases that let it speak to both the ensuing narrative and our own
experience of it. Instead of the expected announcement that this story
is about Buck Rogers “in the twenty-fifth century,” the narrator places
this tale “in the twentieth century,” the time frame of Lucas’s audience.
It further describes Buck as “just an average guy,” hardly the case for
the serial hero, but precisely suggesting the soon-to-be introduced
THX, while also implicating the film’s audience. Finally, the trailer ends
with a warning that we should not miss the “next exciting episode,” en-
titled “Tragedy on Saturn.” Of course, a “tragedy” is precisely what the
film then depicts, situating it right here on Earth: a fall of humankind
thanks to its technological hubris. This prologue, consequently, points
directly toward the following narrative, establishes certain signposts
that will prove useful for evaluating its events, and even suggests that
we see it within a lineage of popular science fiction – one that often
132 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

couches commentary about the most pressing cultural concerns in a

fantastic and disarming context, at both a temporal and aesthetic dis-
tance from our world.
Though the rest of THX 1138 has a decidedly reflexive thrust, it does
not develop this dimension in any sort of nostalgic way, certainly never
as forthrightly as in that prologue’s homages to the serials and other
science fiction ancestors. Rather, as Michael Pye and Lynda Myles note,
the key scheme of its futuristic vision “is voyeuristic, full of cameras
that pry, screens that show, observers heard casually asking for tighter
close-ups.”18 In effect, it sets about establishing the mediated nature
of this world by underscoring that “cinematic derealization” of which
Paul Virilio speaks, while also demonstrating its effects on the individ-
ual. We see that the character THX is constantly watching a futuristic
version of television, projected holograms that are comic, sexual, or ex-
tremely violent in nature, and whose ghostly materializations reflect on
his own existence. The stupor into which he descends as he watches
and the way he uses this entertainment to avoid interacting with his
companion LUH (Maggie McOmie), even to substitute for her compan-
ionship, suggests how the media have become a kind of drug, a way
of dropping out of or escaping the real world and an extension of that
larger drug culture that this society, much like the one described in
Huxley’s Brave New World, has fostered in order to control its people.
As noted above, the fact that the subjects of these programs are invari-
ably black points to a way in which racism is implicated in and reified
by the media, even institutionalized in this culture. In a kind of ultimate
ideological development, the media have, it seems, simply become the
source of all ideas here, constructors of the abstract or cinematized
reality that these people, through some untold catastrophe or wrong
turn in social development, have come to inhabit and to accept un-
questioningly. Constant announcements on the job substitute for hu-
man conversation, comparing productivity for different sectors and
encouraging laborers to “keep up the good work.” An accident an-
nouncement smoothes over troubling events, assuring the workers
that they have nothing to worry about, even as explosions occur, radi-
ation warning signs light up, and chaos reigns. When a consumer won-
ders why a certain product is no longer available, a prepared message
intones that “consumption is being standardized,” but that one should
still “Buy now. Buy more now. Buy . . . and be happy.” Just as the chil-
dren in this world are given their knowledge through a painless, intra-
venous drip plugged into their arms, so the people, through the almost

imperceptible “drip” of the media, are being told how to think and act,
and having constructed for them, in this “electronic labyrinth,” a thor-
oughly unreal world.19
Of course, this vision of the future foregrounds our sense of the real
in another register by pointing up our relationship to the movies them-
selves; for in its emphasis on that voyeuristic perspective and the me-
diated nature of this world, the film challenges us to be less naïve in
the face of a mediated world, to be more wary about the sorts of im-
ages we consume, even those marketed to us by the movies. In fact, it
suggests how the cinema and the media in general conspire to fashion
an ersatz reality and situate us within it as subjects of their powerful
and pervasive address; but that attitude seems to spring from a con-
cern about our seemingly mindless consumption of and constant mold-
ing by media products, from the sense that we have let the media
become our material and moral compass. Hence, the film’s ultimate in-
dictment of this derealized world is probably its transformation of the
spiritual into the electronic, its substitution of a televised image for
God. When our media pretend to offer us God, when the spiritual is
effectively realized as a video image, complete with preprogrammed,
random responses to our prayers, questions, and confessions, THX
1138 suggests, we greatly need a new level of self-consciousness about
the media and all their offerings. At the same time, the customary re-
sponse of this god Om – “The blessings of the State, the blessings of
the masses” – reminds us that the film’s aim is not a simple political
one; for such pseudocommunist cant invokes a kind of socialist dream
turned nightmare, and it almost ironically clashes with the film’s par-
allel excavation of the ideology of a capitalist society. Along with this
sort of rhetoric we repeatedly hear on the sound track the interroga-
tion, “Are you now or have you ever been,” a phrase that obviously
evokes the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee
amid the red scare of the 1940s and early 1950s, and in the process sug-
gests the archconservative repression of that era. The juxtaposition
of such politically loaded rhetoric throughout the narrative hints of a
deep distrust of either extreme, and thus Lucas’s valuation of the indi-
vidual and individual freedom – a position reconsidered in a film like
Star Wars – over conventional political solutions. Seen in this respect,
the film takes on the coloring of an ironic utopia, in the manner of such
works as Logan’s Run or Demolition Man (1993). Moreover, its seeming-
ly conflicted politics begin pointing to something far deeper than any
naiveté on Lucas’s part at this early stage in his career; they might sug-
134 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

gest how reality itself has begun to collapse all distinctions and be-
come victim here.
Still, even that level of self-consciousness which the narrative re-
peatedly offers, the film suggests, may well prove elusive, thanks to our
own seemingly inevitable complicity in a world of mediation, through
our own tendency “to become film.” As Virilio explains, “the develop-
ment of the new technologies of digital imagery and of synthetic vi-
sion,” nicely anticipated in this film, has resulted in “the ascendancy
of the ‘reality effect’ over a reality principle,”20 that is, a tendency on
the cultural level to buy into or accept the ideology of a mediated real-
ity, to embrace the virtual over the real. Thus our current human tra-
jectory, he suggests, is to follow suit, to become on the individual level
much like what that cinematic “effect” implies. Here, then, is what I see
as the real key to THX’s reworking and interrogation of the utopian/
dystopian film: its sketching of the dimensions of this “cinematic” hu-
man, of what might or might not be on the human scale.
That sketch begins with the narrative’s opening, for at that point we
first see THX as a grainy image on a screen. It is the perspective pro-
duced by the video camera in his medicine cabinet, and one that sub-
stantiates the “voyeuristic” description Pye and Myles attach to this
narrative. As we quickly see, this “medicinal” camera is just one of a
series of monitoring devices that are everywhere and that render this
world a kind of Foucaultian panopticon, that is, a realm much like the
nineteenth-century French prison Michel Foucault describes wherein
prisoners were always under surveillance as a way of enforcing social
discipline. At every turn – when he is at work, when he makes love to
LUH, when he is put on trial for “criminal drug evasion,” when he is
being “conditioned” prior to imprisonment, even when he is escaping
from this world – THX becomes just one more fuzzy image on a video
monitor or radar screen, constantly under some sort of surveillance.
When he – or LUH – opens the medicine cabinet, an automatic electron-
ic voice interrogates his video image, “What’s wrong?” While that query
establishes the basic premise of this film – that there is indeed much
“wrong” with this, and indeed our own, world – the image itself estab-
lishes the key terms of that wrongness; for that grainy image, barely
recognizable as the figure we later see, points toward the abstract re-
figuration of the human – as a visual image, a function to be monitored
and manipulated, already a kind of derealized hologram.
Perhaps the key scene in fully developing this seeming fate of hu-
manity is when THX is being reconditioned prior to imprisonment. As

in the case of the medicine-cabinet shots, he is here reconstituted as

an image on a video screen, accompanied by several offscreen voices.
Of the two voices we hear, one seems in charge, explaining to the other
how to use a new mechanism for controlling human subjects, a device
that allows for varying views – for example, zooming in and out on the
subject, like a movie camera – and for complete physiological manip-
ulation through an electronic “cortical bond.” The other, admitting that
he has “never had any experience with the Mark 8 board,” clumsily
handles the situation, as he asks questions, tries out new power and
frequency variations on his control deck, and carelessly lets some of
the settings go beyond the allowed maximums. We measure these ef-
fects largely by the video image of THX – a body distorted into all sorts
of positions, contorted in pain, and set in uncontrollable movement. He
screams in agony, but of course from their distant, detached position,
his audience cannot hear and pays no attention in any case. He is, after
all, for them simply a collection of pixels, a video image accompanying
and illustrating a set of superimposed numerical readouts that take
precedence. It is as if he has become a kind of electronic puppet, an
electrically animated figure, a model of those same CGI effects that,
thanks in great part to Lucas’s later technological innovations, have
come to dominate, even become the star attraction of, the contempo-
rary science fiction film. Once translated into an image on a screen, the
film suggests, an individual like THX no longer has any human value or
substance; he is simply a product of the vision machine that is society.
After these conditioning experiments, THX is put into a futuristic
prison that illustrates another dimension of that human trajectory “to
become film.” Once situated within the new “reality effect,” the sort of
virtual reality of the cinematized world, a true fantasy realm, Virilio ar-
gues, “we have lost our points of reference to orient ourselves”; as a
result, “the de-realized man is a disoriented man.”21 Fittingly, therefore,
imprisonment in such a world radically differs from traditional incar-
ceration. A monochromatic open area with no horizon line and seem-
ingly no walls, the prison offers no point of reference for orientation,
no boundaries toward which one might move or try to cross, no re-
straints of any sort against which to struggle. It is the nearly perfect
embodiment of the indeterminate realm of the fantastic, the realm
where boundaries are constantly blurred or simply disappear, leaving
one, like the reader of a fantasy tale, unsure how to make sense of this
experience. The prison becomes little more than abstract space, like
the dead white screen of a video monitor, and its inhabitants easily take
136 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

on the characteristics of this situation, as we see SEN (Donald Pleas-

ence) and others engaged in pointless philosophical debate, caught up
in their own pointless abstractions. Underscoring that effect is the mut-
tering of one anonymous prisoner: “deciding where we are . . . talking
about leaving . . . trying to determine the future . . . it’s ridiculous. What
about keeping things livable here, now?” It is a feeble protest against
the pull of abstraction, a weak call back to reality, but one that goes
barely heard on the densely layered sound track and that never regis-
ters on the expressionless faces of the other prisoners. Set down in an
abstract, totally fantastic world, conditioned out of their natural human
reactions, these people have already become little more than abstract
figures, having no more real substance or ability to act autonomously
than subjects on a video screen.
Especially telling in this context is that one of the few figures able
to see through this disorienting effect and even point a way out is one
of those “impostor or something” figures that typically populate the
genre. In this case it is an escaped hologram, a figure that explains how
it “always wanted to be part of the real world” and so revolted against
the electronic, cinematic, and spectacular status to which it had been
relegated. As THX and SEN wander around in the all-white, dimension-
less prison, apparently walking in circles thanks to their lack of orien-
tation and with no prospects of escape, they encounter this figure
coming from the opposite direction. From its contrary position, its re-
bellion against a cinematic reality, the hologram points the way out –
looking directly into the camera, extending a finger toward us, and af-
firming, “That’s the way out.” This look of outward regard indicates not
only a need to shift to the other side of that viewer–viewed relationship
that characterizes this panopticon society, but also our own respon-
sibility for such imprisonment (another version of fantastic “hesita-
tion”), for being trapped in a derealized world. The ease with which
this trio then escapes through an unlocked door suggests our very real
ability to deal with this situation and echoes Lucas’s view of our con-
temporary situation, that “If you want something bad enough, you can
do it. We are living in cages with the doors open.”22
When THX and his hologram guide attempt to hide from the author-
ities in what resembles a morgue, the hologram offers another obser-
vation on this world that helps explain why so many do “hesitate” and
do not simply walk out of those cages or escape from their program-
ming. After inspecting several of the bodies they find, it asks THX, “Did
you know all the insides are gone from these people?” Since the holo-

gram is an outsider, it seems able to see things that THX and the others
cannot: not only the potential for escape, but also the paralyzing condi-
tion of its human counterparts. What it recognizes is not simply a hid-
den horrific activity – the harvesting of organs, the ultimate reduction
of the human to a commodity – but another sort of reduction that is
already widespread here. Through the forced use of drugs, the infusion
of selected knowledge, and implanted cortical controls, all the inhab-
itants of this world are in the process of becoming all surface without
any “insides,” all image without any substantial sense of self or reality
of their own – in effect, holograms with nothing beyond the surface,
without even that will “to be part of the real.”
Escaping from a world of abstraction, returning to the real, conse-
quently, is not as simple as walking out an open door. SEN, for example,
once separated from THX, loses his will and with it his direction. On
the very brink of freedom, he becomes afraid and returns to a train that
will take him back to his prison life. The hologram who has initially
pointed a way out fares no better, for when pursued by the robotic po-
lice, it enters a car only to find that, because it is a creature of an ab-
stract, electronic realm, it lacks the requisite practical knowledge of
the real world – it has no idea how to drive and immediately crashes.
In contrast, THX easily makes off in a car, disposes of several pursuing
robotic policemen, and overcomes one of the shell dwellers who at-
tacks him. Through physical force and personal willpower, through a
determined physical confrontation with the real, he eludes both the
various electronic monitors tracking his escape and the police, only to
be warned, as he reaches a ventilation shaft leading to the Earth’s sur-
face, away from the artificial world and back to the real, “You have no-
where to go.” With that warning, he pauses momentarily, as if embody-
ing the very spirit of the fantastic text, suggesting again the “hesitation”
between different interpretations of events that Todorov sets as its
abiding and defining characteristic [Fig. 54].23 Although THX’s contin-
ued movement and his emergence on the surface, on a bright red land-
scape silhouetted against a large sun, seemingly resolves that hesita-
tion, even this conclusion carries a weight of irresolution. Hardly an
unalloyed affirmation, the film’s final image of THX, a small figure posed
against a fiery sun in the process of setting, suggests a precarious suc-
cess at best and recalls another warning of his robot pursuers, that
“you cannot survive outside the shell.” Still, he stands in a first confron-
tation with the real, or simply with the natural world, and a single bird
that flies past at least holds out a hope for life here, outside a construct-
138 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

ed world that has also sought to reconstruct the human along its own
derealized lines.
This escape from the cinematic may seem a rather strange vision
for someone like George Lucas, who has proven himself the master of
merchandising his own cinematic dreams, and whose best known and
most successful fantasy of the future is set “A long time ago, in a gal-
axy far, far away.” THX 1138’s cultural commentary, couched in warn-
ings about our own embeddedness in a cinematic reality, simply does
not square so easily with Star Wars action figures, sheets, costumes,
napkins, wallpaper, nor with that film’s lavish efforts at fashioning a va-
riety of minutely detailed and convincing alien environments – at least
not unless we see it within a properly fantastic context. Albert LaValley
certainly senses some of this bothersome element in the earlier film,
as he argues that, for too much of the narrative, THX 1138’s elaborate
visuals take center stage and “subvert the drama of individual awaken-
ing, rendering it innocuous. We enjoy looking at the odd new under-
ground world so much that we lose interest in Robert Duvall’s plight.”24
Yet I would suggest that the visual design, as well as any tendency to
become lost in it, to become caught up in a cinematic fascination, is
very much the point here, just as the fact of a universe believably teem-
ing with great varieties of life is the point in Star Wars. There is, very
simply, a seductive lure to these designs of another world, a power
that, as Jean Baudrillard has argued, emphasizes the potent appeal of
the surface, “the charms and traps of appearances,” that too often in-
sinuate themselves in place of the “meaning” of discourse.25 What Lu-
cas tries to do in his earlier film is to effect a reversal of this surface
effect by exploring “what’s wrong” with our cinematic reality, whereas
in Star Wars, a work we might see more in the marvelous vein, he has
sought to use those “charms and traps” to construct an effective coun-
Of course, in the postmodern context “reality” itself always remains
a troubling term, something that we usually feel compelled to qualify
or put in quotation marks; for in an environment “unhinged by simula-
tion,” as Baudrillard, the apostle of the disappearance of the real, puts
it, reality typically seems little more than a series of constructs26 – or
as Virilio more neatly puts it, the “reality principle” gives way to the
“reality effect.” In such a context, utopias and dystopias, themselves
simply elaborate simulations, can seem almost redundant categories.
Peter Ruppert in his study of the utopian influence points in this direc-
tion as he offers, “what remains of utopia once we accept the inevit-

Figure 54. THX hesitates in the midst of his long, difficult climb to freedom in
THX 1138.

ability of . . . change?”27 But a film like THX 1138 offers some answer to
that question. As its fantastic vision shows, what always remains is the
desire to find a standard or yardstick by which we might measure out
human desire and aspiration, something outside the scope of what Viri-
lio terms “an entirely cinematic vision of the world.”28 Prodded by that
“hesitation” central to the fantastic proper, we confront conflicting
pressures. In need of some measure, a way of gauging our desires for
another place – a locale that, we should remember, always turns out
to be “no place”29 – yet haunted by the vanishing nature of such mea-
sures, the seeming disappearance of the real, we are left to consider,
as the key to change, the very fabric of our futuristic worlds. In the face
of such a difficult context, utopian/dystopian films like THX 1138 or
even more recent works such as The Truman Show, Dark City (both
1998), or The Matrix (1999) can point to a constructed, mediated, ghost-
ly, even cinematic world, something substituted for the real.30 Moreover,
even as they acknowledge and lay bare that derealized world, they also
140 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

begin to suggest an alternative to a destiny that promises to derealize

us as well. In such fantastic worlds – and since we seem to have so
much trouble today talking about the real, perhaps only there – a hu-
man reality can begin to reappear.
It is a reality that Lucas’s film measures out for us in a variety of oth-
er ways, as we can see by taking a final look at it through the glass of
several of those central themes of the genre. As I have suggested earli-
er, throughout the science fiction film we can find, perhaps surprising-
ly, an emphasis on feelings, emotions, and passion as a counterweight
to the form’s iconic enthronement of a reason–technology–science tri-
ad. The implication is that this emphasis, what I have termed the “kiss
and tell” motif, helps to weigh our humanness against the scale of a
thoroughly technologized environment, one whose very system of val-
ues seems to derive from the world of science. It is a system made most
explicit in THX 1138 through the various ways in which society has ef-
fectively quantified the individual: identified as a letter–number desig-
nation, measured in terms of organ-donor potential, understood as a
series of numerical readouts on a superimposed grid, evaluated in
terms of the cost of capture and imprisonment; yet that quantification
speaks only to a greater reduction of the human to a piece of the larger
social machine, or what I have here termed the “vision machine” that
is this future society. In compensation, the film offers an awakening of
the sexual and the emotional dimensions of THX’s life. As LUH prods
him to withdraw from his mandatory drugs (he is eventually charged
by the state with “criminal drug evasion”), he enters into an intimate
relationship with her. The repeated images of the isolated person,
framed within frames, give way to extreme close-ups of THX and LUH
in embrace, touching each other and exploring their bodies. The flat-
tening white-on-white color scheme is disrupted by the play of varied
flesh tones. It is precisely in these “touch-and-tell” scenes that the indi-
vidual eventually emerges – an individual who finally finds meaning in
his relationship not to “the masses,” but to another.
THX 1138’s indictment of this emotionally deadening environment,
one that has sought to sunder the self from the real, finds further de-
velopment in that “stop trying to rationalize” motif described in the
introductory chapter (§ “Genre Determinations”). As we have already
noted, helping to create the “reality effect” of this world is a pervasive
media environment, one that offers constant announcements, intrudes
an interrogative voice into the home, and lures the individual into a
kind of public discourse. In what clearly seems a variation on Orwellian

“doublespeak,” a public voice deflects consumer complaints with the

reassurance that “consumption is being standardized” for greater satis-
faction. The robotic police, whom we several times see beating individ-
uals with clubs and shocking them with cattle prods, assure THX that
they “only want to help” him. The medicine cabinet in THX and LUH’s
apartment not only asks “what’s wrong” every time it is opened, but
also apparently produces a printout elsewhere, a report on their re-
sponses. In addition, as we have already noted, this culture has created
an ersatz god, Om, little more than a broadcast image to which the peo-
ple are encouraged to confess their disaffections and thus their “sins”
against the masses. The overall effect is of a public voice, a dominating
discourse whose function is to explain away all problems, to dissolve
them – like the suddenly audible voice of ideology itself – in a calming
message, to constantly assure the drugged populace that there is in-
deed nothing wrong here. More than that, this public voice seems de-
signed to evoke a complicit voice from the people, a discourse through
which they are encouraged to assist in rendering everything – even
every human tic or urge – as part of society’s sensible regime; yet that
“sense,” that cultural rationale, is also precisely the problem, part of
the generating principle behind the very dissatisfying reality effect that
is this dystopian world.
What THX 1138 offers us, then, is a fantastic vision clearly focused
on the very problematic relationship we have both to our own world
and to those we might conjure up as alternatives. Here, just as Orwell
and others have prophesied, we find reason mobilized to produce a
new and ultimately deadening reality, even as human feelings are es-
sentially proscribed because of their potential challenge to that re-
gime. Still, in holding open the possibility for a way out, for the promise
of life beyond “the shell,” the film also emphasizes the fluid, uncertain
nature of this fantastic reality, what Rosemary Jackson, in an effort to
suggest a certain indeterminacy, simply calls “the unnatural.”31 It re-
minds us that the utopian/dystopian narrative, like the various ideol-
ogies that subtly shape our thinking, is finally all about the imaginary
ways in which we experience our world. At the same time, it suggests
our own ability to contest the power of that experience, to speculate,
in the precise sense of the fantastic, on what might or might not be,
now or in the future.
The Science Fiction Film
as Marvelous Text
Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Help! I’m lost. – Close Encounters

s Rosemary Jackson emphasizes, the fantastic text seems to
have, as its underlying purpose, a desire to put “the real under
scrutiny.”1 In offering its alternative version of everyday expe-
rience or calling into question the rules that would seem to govern that
everyday world, it transports us to a new territory – at least “no longer
in Kansas,” as Dorothy tells Toto – or perhaps more precisely into a
kind of liminal position wherein we must start figuring out the rules
anew. Essentially, it fantasizes us. That effect, I would suggest, becomes
especially evident in and significant for the marvelous dimension of
fantasy, which focuses on forces from outside the human realm, forces
that, in other contexts, we have traditionally associated with the super-
natural, that unexpectedly come into play and compel us to reconcep-
tualize our world by seeing it as part of some larger and more complex
realm. As conventional explanations prove unavailing, the effect of that
otherness or outside intervention typically proves disorienting – both
to characters and to the audience – as we see in the above comment
by a character in Steven Spielberg’s first science fiction effort, Close
Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Faced with a power outage, power
company employee Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has set about his as-
signed task of finding the problem, fixing it, and restoring power and
thus light to his world – of bringing it back to normalcy. However, not
only can he not find the problem, he cannot even find himself – that is,
where he is at present, his coordinates on a map. In this case another
kind of supernatural force has intervened: the science fiction version
of the supernatural, the alien other, which has almost immediately
and incomprehensibly unhinged his reality and left him crying out in
the darkness for help, for reorientation, for a better map of what now
seems a far more mystifying reality. It is on this effect that I want to
focus primarily as we turn our attention to marvelous instances of the
science fiction film.

142 ❖

As was suggested in Chapter 1, we might see any science fiction

films that examine the impact of forces outside the human realm, that
depict the conventional encounter with alien beings or other worlds,
for example, as corresponding to the marvelous branch of the fantas-
tic. This category would thus include near-apocalyptic narratives like
War of the Worlds (1953), as well as ones with an almost theological di-
mension like Contact (1997). The former, adapted from H. G. Wells’s fa-
mous novel, effectively shatters the boundaries of the human world
with its Martian invaders who devastate Earth and nearly wipe out hu-
manity. Its cataclysmic images, along with vague clues as to what the
Martian invaders look like, effectively point up how vulnerable we are
to forces and beings completely beyond our conception. The latter
film, taken from Carl Sagan’s novel of the same title, explores the con-
temporary fascination with the possibility of powerful alien beings in
a far different way, not as a story of invasion and destruction but as
one of scientific curiosity and even invitation. Moreover, it pairs its sto-
ry of an astronomer’s search for signs of some intelligent life in the uni-
verse with the larger question of humanity’s spiritual yearnings, using
both types of search to point up our desire to find meaning in our ex-
istence. Despite their external differences, then, texts like War of the
Worlds and Contact effectively draw on that marvelous impulse, as they
set about expanding the scope of our knowledge, especially the knowl-
edge of our own nature.
To focus this discussion more precisely, I want to concentrate on
Spielberg’s Close Encounters, a film that, along with George Lucas’s Star
Wars of the same year, helped bring the science fiction genre back to
the high level of popularity it had enjoyed in the 1950s. It is, of course,
a relatively early work from a figure whom we now closely associate
with fantasy, thanks to his subsequent direction of films like Raiders
of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T, the Extraterrestrial (1982), and Jurassic Park
(1993), as well as to a series of fantasy efforts produced through his
company Amblin Entertainment, particularly the three Back to the Fu-
ture films (1985, 1989, 1990). Close Encounters began as a series of con-
versations between Spielberg and producers Michael and Julia Phillips
about the impact of UFOs on public consciousness, conversations that
Spielberg eventually fashioned into a script about mysterious visita-
tions and sudden compulsions, shared by people around the world, to
visualize a mountain in America and journey to it, as if on a pilgrimage
to some newfound holy place – an attitude quite in keeping with what
we might see as a marvelous dimension of the science fiction film. Al-
144 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

though Spielberg would stock his story with a host of easily recognized
conventions of the science fiction genre – mysterious activations of
machinery, official denials of alien existence, alien contact with a select
few humans, unnatural behavior by those few – that story did mark a
rather different turn in American attitudes toward the alien or other.
Here, in contrast to the many stories of alien invasion and disaster
that through the early cold-war period dominated the genre – a body
of work that had once led Susan Sontag to characterize science fiction
as representing the “Imagination of Disaster”2 – and different too from
the epic treatment of other cultures we find in its contemporary, Star
Wars, we find a story of belief, acceptance, and quasi-religious affirma-
tion that humans are not alone in the universe, not really “lost,” as the
film’s Roy Neary initially fears.
For Columbia Pictures, doing such a story on the large and costly
scale Spielberg envisioned was a gamble. In fact, its $19 million budget
marked it as the most expensive Columbia production to date. At this
point too, science fiction was not a particularly marketable proposi-
tion: Only the double box-office punch of Star Wars and Close Encoun-
ters really changed that market. Moreover, entrusting such a project to
a director with only three feature films to his credit, albeit one of them
the great box-office success Jaws (1975), was also risky business. As
fellow filmmaker John Milius predicted at the time, “It will either be the
best Columbia film, or it will be the last Columbia film.”3 While neither
best nor last, Close Encounters, like Star Wars, did generate enormous
revenue – it grossed $300 million worldwide – and won numerous
awards,4 results that suggest it served Columbia well and that its mar-
velous vision struck a most responsive chord in its audience.
Before looking at this film in more detail, we should acknowledge
that, at first glance, the science fiction genre must seem a most unlikely
site for the development of marvelous themes; for as Jackson, follow-
ing Todorov’s lead, reminds us, the marvelous text typically will “invest
otherness with supernatural qualities,”5 with the sort of paranormal,
transcendent, or even religious dimensions that the reason–science–
technology triad would seem intent on banishing or simply replacing
with its own human-centered regime. In his effort to explain the appeal
of science fiction, however, Damon Knight would strike a similar chord,
as he explains that “our undiminished wonder at the mystery which
surrounds us is what makes us human,” and that science fiction’s in-
herent “sense of wonder” specifically allows us to “approach that mys-
tery.”6 Certainly, most science fiction invests science itself with that

sense of wonder – as we muse over what strange things our science

might someday bring to pass – or links science to it through the task
of explaining away the seemingly inexplicable or supernatural. We
should not be surprised, then, to note that the marvelous is precisely
where Todorov makes room for science fiction narratives in his fantas-
tic schema. He describes a distinct subgroup of this category that he
terms the “instrumental marvelous,” stories that circumscribe their
events in a rational vantage, even as they describe the operation of
“laws which contemporary science does not acknowledge.”7 Of course,
not all science fiction films operate in this realm, not all draw their
central premise from the positing of a newly discovered set of “laws.”
For example, we might consider a number of works that simply extrap-
olate from the known and abide by the scientific laws that govern our
world, particularly works focusing on space exploration such as Desti-
nation Moon (1950), Countdown (1968), and Marooned (1969). Conse-
quently, I believe that simply taking on face value Todorov’s placement,
positioning all or even most science fiction narratives in this category,
would help very little in clarifying our sense of the genre. By viewing
the subset of alien-invasion/encounter films as versions of the marvel-
ous tale, though, we can begin to ask important and differentiating
questions about them. The alien-encounter films are ultimately about
a causality that transcends the human, that pulls us out of the every-
day, that requires us to move beyond and to interrogate our normal
experience of the real, every bit as much as if they were testaments
about a spiritual experience. While this subgroup usually does not im-
plicate the sort of spiritual or supernatural powers that we so easily
find in many horror narratives – in films such as Nosferatu (1922), The
Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976), for example – their specific focus
on “the other” challenges our sense of the real and the everyday in
much the same fashion as do texts that we would more readily identify
as marvelous.
Of course, a number of these other-themed films actually do move
in just such a conventionally marvelous direction, do at least implicate
some sort of transcendent order and thus offer a convenient jumping-
off point for this discussion. Since the extraterrestrial encounter and
its consequent contravening of known “laws” and cultural traditions
provide a mechanism for posing the question of a kind of ultimate oth-
erness, resonances of the supernatural should not seem completely
out of place; in fact, such references often surface as metaphors in
these works. Among the science fiction films that do make an almost
146 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

literal “leap of faith,” we might consider a most obvious example, the

British film The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936). Based on an H. G.
Wells story, it begins as a gentle fantasy about an English shop clerk
upon whom a trio of gods bestows nearly unlimited power. From this
premise it develops a science fiction trajectory as the clerk then uses
that power in an effort to create a utopian society, but, as in many sim-
ilar narratives, he also winds up nearly destroying Earth. More recent-
ly, we have seen variations on this motif in a number of American films
that push the marvelous impulse to its logical extreme, blurring the
boundaries between the world of science and technology, the tradition-
al ground of science fiction, and the spiritual world. Most obvious in
this category are the Star Wars films with their positing of “the Force”
as a kind of spiritual underpinning for all existence and demonstration
of its power over even the greatest technological accomplishments of
the Empire, as we see in the Force-guided destruction of the Death Star
at the end of the first film. Perhaps more to the point, however, are such
works as 2010 (1984), the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space
Odyssey (1968), which transforms the earlier film’s mysterious mono-
liths into runic messages from God; Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
(1989), wherein the starship Enterprise is hijacked in an effort to reach
the planet where God supposedly resides; and Contact (1997), which
describes how transmissions from outer space revive a spiritual dimen-
sion in an atheistic scientist. These and similar films, because of their
very exaggeration of the marvelous impulse, make the satisfactions of
that branch of the fantastic all the more apparent; for these marvelous
texts achieve, as Todorov explains, an almost “impossible union,” as
they allow audiences to “believe without really believing,”8 to have the
pleasures of hope, of the possibility of the future, and of otherness
while still anchored within a skeptical present – or in these instances,
in the world of modern science.
That sense of the mysterious and, perhaps more accurately, even
the mystical, of a world almost eager for some intervention by super-
natural forces, easily resonates in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
and suggests its marvelous character. In the conventional fashion of
so many other works about alien encounters – films that ascribe either
life-affirming (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951) or apocalyptic (Inde-
pendence Day, 1996) possibilities to those encounters – it offers us a
world that is perceptibly like our own, certainly one steeped in rec-
ognizable popular culture icons of the era, and yet also undeniably dif-
ferent, a world at least where it no longer seems possible to deny the

presence of mysteries in that culture or to explain them away as mis-

observed or misunderstood natural phenomena. It is, in fact, a world
that seems designed to justify faith in a most fundamental sense, as be-
lief in an order beyond easy demonstration, beyond common reason,
or here, simply beyond the human. This quasi-religious ground for the
narrative was quickly recognized by critics, as is apparent in Stanley
Kauffmann’s review that describes Close Encounters as “not so much
a film as an event in the history of faith.”9 Yet for those same reasons,
and particularly for the way it cobbles together and capitalizes on var-
ious popular forms of the spiritual experience and mixes them with
obvious generic conventions, the film was also scorned. Andrew Gor-
don offers the best summary of this view in an early article on the film,
wherein he describes it as “a purified, Disneyized version of religion”
and as a commercially adroit exploitation of 1970s pop mysticism and
religious euphoria. It cashes in on several recent and closely related
phenomena: the revival of “born again,” fundamentalist religion; the
popularity of various gurus and cult leaders in what has been called
“the spiritual supermarket” of contemporary America; Erich Von Dani-
ken’s series of books and films on gods from outer space; the presum-
ably inexplicable disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle; and, finally,
the persistent UFO cultists.10
For our purposes, of course, we need not embrace either of these
points of view. We do not have to determine whether the film affords
a genuine postmodern version of religious mysticism or simply capital-
izes, in a rather obvious way, on what we can clearly recognize as the
contemporary appetite for new versions of such an experience, unbur-
dened by the baggage of traditional religion. It is enough to recognize
that Close Encounters follows in the long tradition of marvelous narra-
tives that from the outset and in many different ways seem to present
otherness within a context of “supernatural qualities.”
The primary representation of that otherness, the alien figure, is the
obvious focal point for any inquiry into the marvelous. To suggest the
larger, cultural dimensions of this representation, we might turn to Ed-
ward Said’s classic treatment of the other in Western culture. Drawing
on the West’s depiction of the oriental and of orientalia, he argues that
all such representations of the other proceed not from “an inert fact of
nature,” but rather from what he terms a particular “style of thought,”
one in which we manage “to produce” the other that we desire to see.11
If we look at the depiction of the alien or extraterrestrial, a very stark
conception of otherness, as a construction that we culturally fashion
148 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

and a reflection of that fashioning mind, then, we can begin to under-

stand better how the marvelous narrative works for us, how it places
the producing subject (or re-places that “lost” self) in a secure position.
The alien-encounter narrative can, of course, take many forms, each
predicated on a different sense of the other. The invasion narrative, of-
ten reflecting a conservative ideology – a suspicion and even fear of the
other – suggests one line of development. Exemplified by films like The
War of the Worlds, the various versions of Invasion of the Body Snatch-
ers (1956, 1978, 1993), and Starship Troopers (1997), with their aliens
variously depicted as squidlike, vegetable, and insect, respectively, this
line conventionally visualizes the other as pointedly nonhuman, of-
ten as something from which we naturally recoil. In stark contrast, we
might think of the many benevolent-alien films and those that would
paint the universe in the colors of a liberal politics, as simply another
sort of multicultural society – especially works like Star Wars, The Last
Starfighter (1984), and Batteries Not Included (1987). In either case, we
should emphasize what that other represents, not simply as a corre-
spondence to something in the real world but as a powerful “style of
thought.” It is evidence of a way of generically constructing all that is
outside of the self, which ultimately reflects much about the produc-
ing self.
One of Close Encounters’s chief accomplishments is the way in which
it mines both of those generic veins described above, as if it were try-
ing to be all things to all science fiction viewers. The sense of mystery
established at the opening of the film, with the discovery of the famous
lost squadron of torpedo bombers incongruously set down in the So-
nora Desert in the middle of a duststorm, is clearly linked to a sense
of possible menace – the danger of the unknown and the inexplicable.
In fact, testifying to Spielberg’s thorough knowledge of the genre, the
setting, sound effects, and general construction of the scene echo a
similar discovery scene at the start of another famous “invasion” film,
this one about giant mutant ants, Them! (1954). As the narrative ad-
vances, Spielberg employs a variety of tricks, reminiscent especially
of the horror film and worked out in his previous movies, like Duel
(1971) and Jaws, to further that eerie tone and manipulate our sense
of the other. Electrical appliances that turn on and off, as if moved by
some unseen power, mechanical toys that suddenly start up by them-
selves, blinding lights from various mysterious or unknown sources,
strange noises, jump cuts for shock effect – these are the sorts of ef-
fect that we encounter at every turn in Close Encounters. When com-
bined with the justifiable terror of the mother, Jillian Guiler (Melinda

Dillon), whose four-year-old son Barry (Carey Guffey) is apparently kid-

napped by the aliens, as well as the antics of the protagonist Roy Neary,
who seems practically possessed by alien forces, these effects build up
a consistently disturbing and even threatening context. They lead us
to construct a particular view of the aliens, one clearly informed by the
long tradition of alien-invasion films. We expect that, when the aliens
finally appear, they will represent a powerful physical threat and radi-
cally jeopardize our human hegemony. Their unseen presence, in short,
speaks to our fears of the unknown, of the other, and, perhaps more
disconcertingly, to a sense of our own frailty as a species.
Neverthelesss, as the narrative unfolds, these conventionally men-
acing signposts are increasingly matched by other incidents of a differ-
ent tenor, and finally an alien appearance, that indicate that all of those
mysterious manifestations around which Spielberg has constructed his
fantastic frissons have just been signs of a cosmic – and certainly a
directorial – playfulness. In this context we might consider Neary’s en-
countering others who not only believe in the aliens but find their light-
show-like manifestations not so much threatening as entertaining, or
the masses in India who react to signs of alien presence as if they
marked an extraordinary religious moment. Little Barry Guiler’s inno-
cent delight (as Andrew Gordon suggests, we could see the name as in-
dicating a certain guilelessness the adults lack)12 at the aliens’ appear-
ance also points the way here, suggesting that receptivity rather than
fear might be a more appropriate response. Most important, though,
is the very appearance of the aliens in the film’s final sequence. In prep-
aration for this appearance, the narrative gradually transfers the real
sense of otherness from the aliens to the government and its forces –
the police, army, scientists – all of whom are working, at times quite
violently, to “protect” the people by covering up the visitors’ presence
[Fig. 55]; and that transference frees up our expectations, opens other
possibilities for the aliens’ appearance. When their great mother ship
lands on Devils Tower [Fig. 56], it debarks a number of small, childlike
figures who seem strangely illuminated as they freely mingle with the
humans gathered there. Not the “Devil’s” minions, not even insectlike,
and hardly a threat, they are creatures of innocence, of playfulness, of
wonder – figures who bring a new light of understanding to humanity,
who represent a quite different “style of thought” than that at which
the narrative initially hinted.
Along with this shift in the presentation of the other, Close Encoun-
ters also develops a shifting perception of self, as the aliens, in the usu-
al manner of that “impostor or something” motif, serve to reflect an
150 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

Figure 55. The official effort to track and make “sense” out of the UFO visitors
in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

“other” or different sense of our own nature – one that, the narrative
suggests, has typically gone repressed or simply never been recog-
nized. The particular challenge that the other brings out in this film –
and perhaps even more pointedly in Spielberg’s later film E.T. – can be
glimpsed in the childlike nature of Roy Neary. Early in the film we see
him playing with toy trains; it is, we suppose, his hobby, although it
also suggests a similarity between the father and his children, a sim-
ilarity that has largely been overlooked or forgotten. He is, as various
other details begin to suggest, simply an open and playful person, a
most fitting choice by the aliens to receive their message. His charac-
ter is far more receptive, more childlike than most; unlike so many oth-
ers in his society, he has never quite lost contact with his own child-
like innocence and sense of wonder. At the same time, we should note
the curious manner in which the film treats Neary’s children. They are
depicted not, as we might expect, simply as additional models of some
innocent state to which we need to return, but almost like little savages

Figure 56. A “marvelous” intervention into the rational world, as an alien ship
arrives at the scientific installation atop Devils Tower in Close Encounters of the
Third Kind.

– loud, ill-mannered, and having scant respect for their parents. Him-
self a child of modern suburban America, Spielberg recognizes the of-
ten disturbing effects that our culture can have on its young with its
self-absorbed parents, reliance on television as teacher and babysitter,
and generally chaotic home life. Indeed, he would later be involved in
a project that underscored and capitalized on the potentially horrific
nature of American suburbia in Poltergeist (1982), a film he both wrote
and produced. Through the comparison of father and children here he
seems to be tentatively mapping that cultural territory, suggesting how,
even as we misplace the innocence in ourselves, we are also warping
it in our children, in those who should naturally possess it, as we cut
them off from any real sense of adulthood or responsibility. However,
as an alternative, Close Encounters does hold out a key potential, a pos-
sibility for a combination of growth and renewal that might result from
the alien/other experience and thus from the new sense of reality it
brings. The film suggests that Neary and, by extension, the rest of hu-
mankind, might grow to a new maturity, one in which he will be able
to maintain a sense of that child within, or at least of that childlike
wonder and naiveté that are ultimately necessary for opening up to and
understanding the human place in the universe.
152 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

More than just, as Andrew Gordon suggests, a limning of “the beati-

tude of the crazy or of the childish innocent,”13 then, Close Encounters
draws from this child imagery an important sense of what the encoun-
ter with the other (both alien and “other” self) might entail. It forces
us to reconsider our own nature, particularly the ways in which we
have drawn unnecessary and debilitating limits around it. Here, for ex-
ample, we see how the government has itself become a kind of protec-
tive parent: determining what we should know; trying to insulate us
from any disturbing and thus potentially dangerous revelations by ex-
plaining away UFOs and other mysterious encounters as sightings of
military aircraft; staging elaborate dramas, such as a deadly anthrax
outbreak, to frighten off people from the Devils Tower site; even gas-
sing civilians to get them “out of the way” of its “expert” efforts at deal-
ing with the extraterrestrials – in sum, doing all it can to keep the peo-
ple in a preternaturally childish state. It is that abnormal childishness,
though, that finally seems so dangerous and even incapacitating here,
and a fundamental target of Close Encounters’s marvelous vision; for
it clearly traps people in a most unnatural condition, so that they be-
come like Roy’s wife, Bonnie (Teri Garr), who simply “cannot cope”
with life’s pressures, or like his kids, who seem incapable of ever mov-
ing into responsible adulthood. What is finally needed, the film offers,
is a kind of growth and development through the innocent and open vi-
sion of the child. Thus Spielberg suggests in an interview that we might
think of the aliens as having “come all this way perhaps to observe
growing up in the twentieth century.”14
Neary illustrates this process through the radical transformation he
undergoes in the course of his encounters with aliens. His initial behav-
ior, wherein he too seems interested simply in play, shuts out others,
including his own family, and seems quite literally “lost,” gradually
gives way to a sense of serious purpose. Singled out, marked with the
stigmata – burns from his first “close encounter” with the alien ship –
that both indicate his special state and lend another religious note to
this experience, he grows aware of others around him who have shared
his experience and becomes involved with them – especially with Jil-
lian, the mother who has lost her child to the aliens. That awareness
and involvement enable him to move beyond the limits of his suburban
subdivision, to take directed action, as we see when he is able to cut
across country, to navigate by dead reckoning – as if guided by Spiel-
berg’s own version of “the Force” – in order to avoid government bar-
ricades and reach Devils Tower. He in effect grows up in the course of

Figure 57. Roy Neary is greeted by the childlike alien visitors of Close Encoun-
ters of the Third Kind.

this story, a result rendered dramatically when Neary, described by

Andrew Gordon as far too much like a “Cub Scout,”15 receives the same
outfit as all of the carefully chosen government representatives – all
tall, square-jawed, and muscular – and is permitted to march into the
main alien spacecraft with this scientifically selected group for a jour-
ney into the unknown and into the future. It is a journey that represents
humanity’s own growth into something like cosmic adulthood, and one
that begins, appropriately enough, with these aliens who look very
much like children [Fig. 57], who seem possessed of the same sort of
wonder at our species as we earlier see registered on the face of little
Barry Guiler and, eventually, on the faces of many of the scientists gath-
ered at the Devils Tower site. Only from such an innocent and open at-
titude, a truly marvelous perspective, as opposed to the closed model
154 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

of government response, the film suggests, can the necessary growth

of the species begin.
What that growth represents in this case is far more than just some
sort of individual development or personal maturation, however. Al-
though certainly steeped in the classical Hollywood narrative of indi-
vidual striving, Spielberg ultimately has a broader cultural intent here.
Seen in the marvelous context outlined above, this narrative of growth
signals the far larger need of the species to find itself in the vastness
of the universe. Close Encounters develops this aspect of its marvelous
story on the one hand through its repeated dislocations. When Roy is
initially sent out to deal with a sudden and inexplicable power outage,
he quickly finds that he is facing not one “grid” that has gone out, but
all the grids in the area. With all grids equally blacked out, there is no
longer any point of reference for him, and it is little wonder that he
quickly finds himself “lost,” much as does the character THX when in
the white, dimensionless prison of THX 1138 (1971). Close Encounters
further develops this sense of disorientation, shows it to be a common
modern condition, and even extends it to the audience through a se-
ries of jump cuts that shift us about to a variety of Earth locations –
the Sonora Desert in Mexico, the Gobi Desert in China, a plain in India,
various locales in the United States, including atop Devils Tower – all
helping to develop a larger sense of mystery and dislocation here. At
these and various other sites, though, as well as in the brains of select-
ed humans throughout the world, there are also traces of location,
hints not only of an alien presence but also of a rendezvous point, a
place of answers, where we might come together and no longer feel
“lost.” Hence, much of the narrative focuses on that mysterious pil-
grimage of different peoples, for reasons they cannot comprehend, to
the strange natural formation of Devils Tower. Andrew Gordon offers
an interesting reading of this site choice. He describes the “ambiguous-
ly named” Devils Tower as one of a number of similarly ambiguous ef-
fects in the film – elements that function essentially as effects, like the
visceral thrills of an amusement park ride.16 This reading speaks direct-
ly to a weakness that has often been charged to Spielberg’s films, and
particularly to the Indiana Jones films (1981, 1984, 1989), which have,
in fact, been turned into attractions at both Disneyland and Walt Dis-
ney World. Although such visceral thrills are indeed central to most of
his films and one key to their popular appeal, we might note in those
effects evidence of a deeper design at work, in Close Encounters just as
in many of Spielberg’s other films: a subtle sense of how much we are

indeed afraid of the unknown, how we invest it with a sense of fore-

boding or menace, and, consequently, of how we recoil from rather
than approach with the proper sense of wonder those phenomena that
might lead us to a better understanding of our world.
This concerted, worldwide movement of peoples to a single place,
a meaningful location, responds to a comment we hear several times
from Neary: “This means something.” Troubled by that vague moun-
tainous image in his head and determined to work out its significance,
he repeatedly tries to visualize it: in mashed potatoes on his dinner
plate, with mud shoveled into a child’s swimming pool, through model-
ing clay atop his train table. It is an effort to wrest meaning out of this
vision from above, and one whose success also points toward the usu-
al climax for the marvelous tale, the attainment of a kind of reorien-
tation within a larger, typically supernatural scheme. As the novelist
Walker Percy has put it, this sort of attainment marks a shift in humans
from feeling as if we are “lost in the cosmos”17 to a sense of our place
in that scheme to which we have been suddenly awakened.
This sense of the impact of the other, its effect on that widespread
“lost” condition, is perhaps most dramatically represented when the
team of experts studying the recent upsurge in mysterious events inter-
cepts and tries to interpret an alien message. Represented as a series
of numbers, this message seems to stump the team of experts until
an assistant, fittingly a translator for this international group, suggests
that the numbers might indicate lines of latitude and longitude, coor-
dinates on Earth. The subsequent search for a map that would allow
them to check this simple hypothesis produces nothing, only the sug-
gestion that a large globe might be useful. The scene in which they
obtain that globe, by breaking into an office, forcefully ripping it from
its mounts, and then rolling it around seems most telling. It literalizes
what has happened, with the world violently displaced from its usual-
ly stable position, liberated from the conventional perspective that has
circumscribed it. Breaking free from that old perspective, countering
that “lost” feeling, it seems, is a difficult task, requiring force, an imagi-
native leap, even a willingness to break the rules; but the result is a bet-
ter map – of the sort Neary sought earlier in the film – a new sense of
our place in the universe.
This marvelous pattern we have traced should also begin to suggest
another dimension of the narrative, as it powerfully resonates with one
more of those key science fiction themes discussed earlier, what I have
termed the “stop trying to rationalize” motif of the genre. Close Encoun-
156 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

ters’s take on this theme, its own effort at calling into question a single-
minded rational world view, is interestingly lodged largely in a sympa-
thetic scientist figure, the Frenchman Claude Lacombe. In a clever bit
of casting, Spielberg casts as Lacombe his fellow director François Truf-
faut, a figure well known for his sympathetic perspective toward chil-
dren (as is evidenced by such films as The 400 Blows [1959], The Wild
Child [1969], and Small Change [1976]). Here, he is a figure pointedly
open to the naïve or innocent perspective, such as that of Neary and
little Barry, and thus quite unlike the many scientists who populate this
genre’s films of the 1950s, those whose expertise, like that of the peo-
ple who helped construct the atomic bomb, is unquestionably on the
side of the military. Michael Pye and Lynda Myles point up this dif-
ference as they note how he “resists all military schemes to harm the
handful of human beings called by chance to meet the aliens. Yet he is
never seen as a scientist. When someone has to translate those figures
beamed from space into a location on Earth, the answer is found by
the scientist’s interpreter. . . . The scientist is more shaman than lab-
oratory worker. He is full of wonder, not calculation.”18 In this respect,
he plays a key role in establishing the marvelous atmosphere of the
film, as his point of view, set in parallel to that of Neary, motivates
much of the sense of wonder here. We follow Lacombe around the
world, as he checks on a variety of mysteries, such as the reappear-
ance of Flight 19’s planes in Mexico, the inexplicable appearance of a
missing ship in the Gobi Desert, and the spontaneous gathering of great
crowds in northern India, all chanting and pointing to the sky. He be-
comes, in every one of these instances, a measure of what that strictly
rational perspective we typically associate with the scientist cannot
compass, while at the same time he also reminds us of the true role of
the scientist or researcher. We might more precisely think of Lacombe,
then, as a scientist in the fundamental sense of the term, as someone
who, moved by a sense of wonder, is dedicated to knowing through
whatever methods will avail.
At the same time, and in a way that pointedly speaks to a growing
distrust of the establishment in this era – and, we might remember, at
a time before Spielberg himself had become firmly entrenched as part
of the filmmaking establishment – Lacombe is set in opposition to the
government. As we have noted, the government seems to have decid-
ed that its task is twofold: investigating these mysteries and trying to
defend the citizenry against them, as if anything that seemed to fall out-
side of the rational regime as it is currently established – UFOs, mys-

Figure 58. The “light show” conclusion to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

terious appearances and disappearances, strange physical or psychic

phenomena – would pose a threat to its own power. The government,
consequently, becomes a force of rationalization, of cover-ups, of hid-
ing the truth behind a seemingly reasonable facade. While Lacombe
sets about trying to find a new way of understanding – an adaptation
of the Keidaly hand signals, for example – the government tries to cut
off that understanding; while he reaches for what is effectively a new
language, even something outside of what we would typically think of
as the rational scheme – here it is variously the play of musical tones
or shifting patterns of light – the government resorts to bureaucratic
jargon and lies, to the old language of obfuscation. “Trying to rational-
ize” or “talking sense,” talking in the old way, in a way that supports
the status quo, finally gives way to talking imaginatively, to opening up
whole new lines of communication that might lift humanity to another
level of development. In this context, it seems only fitting that the nar-
rative ends not with any sort of rational formulation of this experience
but rather with a completely nonverbal experience – the movement in-
side the giant alien ship that resembles a mandala, with what many crit-
ics of the time dismissed as simply a psychedelic “light show” [Fig. 58].
158 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

Almost in spite of the critics, Spielberg would eventually extend that

spectacular visual conclusion in his reworked version of the film, Close
Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition, released in 1980. Giv-
en $2 million by Columbia to rework the film, he added thirteen min-
utes of additional footage, while also trimming a number of original
scenes. As Spielberg explains, in addition to interpolating material he
had been unable to shoot or use earlier for various reasons, he wanted
to demonstrate that “film is not necessarily a dry-cement process. I
have the luxury of retouching the painting.”19 Foremost among the ad-
ditions he made is an extended ending wherein Neary enters the alien
mother ship and marvels at the literally marvelous visions therein – es-
sentially an even more elaborately developed “light show,” created by
special-effects expert Robert Swathe. Though Spielberg has asserted
that this “Special Edition” is the only authentic version of the film, we
should note that Columbia’s parent company, Sony Pictures, through
its Film Restoration department, would create yet another version of
the film in 1999, one that digitally remastered the sound track and com-
bined footage from both the original release version and the “Special
Edition,” but which also eliminated that end scene inside the mother
Nevertheless, that ending – in either form – seems noteworthy for
its emphasis on a vision that transcends all language, even the suppos-
edly universal Keidaly signals. In it we might see a rendering of Todor-
ov’s own effort at not becoming too essentialist in his description of
the categories of fantasy. As he reminds us, when we talk about the fan-
tastic experience, we should be careful to “insist as much upon the per-
ception” of the fantastic object or event “as upon the object” that car-
ries the fantastic charge.20 We are thus always implicated in a pattern
of what he terms “themes of vision” and “themes of discourse.”21 With
its “light show” conclusion, therefore, Close Encounters presents us, in
the best tradition of fantasy, with a challenge to how we usually see the
world and how we fit those perceptions into our normative categories,
how we account for this new vision of things. As we have previously
noted, in the lineup of carefully selected space travelers, all similarly
attired, all of similarly exemplary physical stature, and all wearing sun-
glasses to protect their eyes against this light show, Neary stands out,
an almost comic misfit; yet his inclusion ensures a far from uniform,
conformist, and “shaded” perception of this new reality. Moreover, it
reassures us that now no account can emerge that will represent only

the government line, the powerfully authoritative discourse that has

previously dominated and shaped thinking about such “close encoun-
ters.” Our world, indeed, our sense of the universe, will now have to
formulate a new explanatory discourse, perhaps one that begins from
scratch employing a new and truly universal language.
Notwithstanding, as we began by noting, this nexus of perceptions
and discourse hardly constitutes what we would conventionally think
of as the supernatural, the key defining element of the marvelous nar-
rative. I chose Close Encounters as an illustrative text, though, precisely
for the ways in which it foregrounds this issue, turns it into the very
subject of its narrative. However we might normally define it, “the su-
pernatural,” as Todorov offers, “always appears in an experience of lim-
its, in ‘superlative’ states,”22 in effect, in all of those various instances
when we push beyond the limits of the known; and such states are
precisely what Close Encounters, far more than a relatively recent and
similarly popular film like Independence Day, finally explores. While it
certainly demonstrates Spielberg’s genius for tapping into the popu-
lar consciousness, for drawing on the established conventions of the
genre, and for using those elements to “play” his audience in some very
fundamental ways, it also does much more. Close Encounters takes us
to and beyond certain perceptual and epistemological “limits,” moves
us into unfamiliar “states,” and in the process challenges our custom-
ary sense of both the real and the supernatural. Here, human purpose,
higher, determining powers, transcendent potential – all dimensions of
the supernatural as conventionally conceived – effectively find their
space-y correspondence; and in this experience of limits, which they
translate for us, we can begin to see the nature of the satisfactions that
attach to such marvelous tales. Close Encounters, with its convention-
ally transcendent experience, lets us encounter a world yanked free
from its traditional moorings, as do a variety of subsequent Spielberg
films: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial with its own childlike alien vision, Juras-
sic Park with its demonstration of how our science might assert con-
trol over the evolution of life on Earth, or even Amistad (1997) with its
history of the United States that finally draws into the foreground the
repressed issues of slavery. All of these films compel us to abandon a
particular way of seeing our world and an established set of bound-
aries, and in compensation offer an alternative, acceptable, in some
cases even comfortable vision of where we might fit in a new scheme
of things. Close Encounters especially suggests that, despite the rapid
160 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

and dizzying changes we have experienced in the past century, as well

as those to which an increasingly technologized world promises to ex-
pose us, if we can but go armed with this vision we might, like Roy
Neary, no longer feel quite so “lost.”
The Science Fiction Film
as Uncanny Text

What is experienced as uncanny is an objectification of the subject’s anxi-

eties, read into shapes external to himself. – Rosemary Jackson1

ince the early 1980s, the figure of the robot, android, replicant,
or cyborg has contributed what is probably the single most
dominant image to the American science fiction film [Fig. 59].
Particularly, the appearance of the film Blade Runner (1982) marked a
rising fascination in the cinema – and certainly in American culture –
with the possibilities of a human artifice, a fascination traced out in
short order in such films as Android (1982), the two Terminator films
(1984, 1991), D.A.R.Y.L. (1985), Making Mr. Right (1987), the three Robo-
Cop films (1987, 1990, 1993), Cherry 2000 (1987), and Eve of Destruction
(1991), among many others. These films speak immediately of a grow-
ing cultural concern with what might be described as an industry of
human synthesis, one involving the creation and transplanting of ar-
tificial organs, the development of mechanical prostheses, the manip-
ulation of human genetics, the widespread availability of cosmetic
surgery, the introduction of industrial robots into the workplace, and
especially the development of artificial intelligence. They chronicle –
and in complex ways respond to – the start of nothing less than a cul-
tural revolution, one in which we would begin the process of remaking,
reshaping, perhaps even perfecting the self, while at the same time ger-
minating the technology that could eventuate in these same technolog-
ical creations finally replacing the self. Such developments would nat-
urally produce both an intense fascination – a fascination that feeds
upon the genre’s fundamental impulse to visualize what “could be” –
and a kind of recoil, a hesitation, even a fear at the potential implica-
tions of “playing god” in this way. It is the humanly reflexive focus of
these films, their “objectification” of our anxieties about these develop-
ments, as Rosemary Jackson puts it, that marks this branch of the sci-
ence fiction film as a singularly uncanny site, a field of texts that deploy

❖ 161
162 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

their own generic mechanisms to interrogate our human reality, to ex-

plore what Todorov broadly terms “themes of the self.”
Among those themes of the self Todorov lists are a variety of con-
cerns that, we should readily recognize, are implicated in practically
any narrative about robotics or what we can more broadly term human
artifice. Those concerns include instances of what he terms a “special
causality,” an instigation or purpose that clearly lies outside of our
common sense of the real or the everyday; the appearance of multiple
personalities or of a doppelgänger figure; and the seeming collapse of
the normal distinctions between subject and object. These, along with
a few other motifs, constitute what Todorov describes as “the basic
network of . . . themes” that typically characterize uncanny texts.2 This
sense of a “network” of possible themes is an important point to estab-
lish at the outset of this chapter because it helps to account for the
very variety in the narratives that we might cluster under that uncanny
heading, while also suggesting a unifying element that holds them, net-
like, in common cause. It allows us to think from the start, as I believe
a proper understanding of genre mechanisms requires, both differ-
entially and essentially; for even as Todorov identifies this variety of
themes that surfaces throughout our uncanny stories, he also finds in
them a consistent thread or root, that is, a uniform sign of the fragile
limit between mind and matter, the subject and the world outside, that
reflects on what increasingly seems a frail human reality. It might be
possible to think of them all, he says, as “themes of vision,” as con-
cerned with the problematic ways in which, at the instigation of the
fantastic, we come to perceive our world and thereby situate ourselves
in it.3
Set in the context of the science fiction film, this sense of the uncan-
ny narrative should help us better understand the self’s relationship
to that reason–science–technology triad on which the genre focuses.
For example, that sense of special causality, as Todorov terms it, imme-
diately evokes the strange and extreme influences of our technology
on the individual, as it sets about making us into something other than
the self – a Terminal Man (1974), a Circuitry Man (1989), a Lawnmower
Man (1992), or perhaps Stepford Wives (1975), as the titles of some sim-
ilar American science fiction films proclaim. By the same token, those
themes of the double focus attention on a range of results from these
influences, as we technologically fashion or project our own duplicates
or simulacra – genetic clones, mechanical robots, even technological
projections of the psyche, such as we find in that classic text Forbidden

Figure 59. The robot Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) provides a recog-
nizable model for the technologized Murphy of RoboCop (1987).

Planet (1956). In addition, the collapse of subject–object distinctions –

that which occurs, for example, when the self becomes something –
points up the most disturbing implications of those results, the conse-
quent qualitative shift in our sense of the self or of others; hence Blade
Runner’s effective evocation of racist attitudes through its narrative
about replicants and their desire, like the rest of humanity, simply to
live. This network of concerns, in turn, foregrounds the rational world
view behind these technological creations, the vantage from which we
have set about effectively constructing – and reconstructing – the hu-
man, in fact, seeing the human as little more than one more construct
within a world of artifice.

As our key text for exploring the science fiction film as this sort of un-
canny text, we shall turn to Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), a nar-
rative about the creation of a super crime-fighting cyborg from the
body of a policeman shot down in the line of duty. It is a film that has
had a major impact on both the larger genre of science fiction and the
164 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

subgenre of robot or human artifice films, as is evidenced by its two

sequels, various imitators, both live-action and animated television se-
ries, action figures, and host of other consumer spin-offs. Equally im-
portant, it is a work that neatly suggests the broad range of implica-
tions to be found in the uncanny narrative, its expected “network” of
themes. Using it as an example, we shall be able to trace out those mo-
tifs of special causality, of doubling, and of a subject–object collapse
that Todorov describes, and in the process illustrate how one might
profitably employ this uncanny category as a vantage for analyzing
similar films.
For all of its impact, however, RoboCop is also a film that almost did
not get made, as the script lingered in the American film industry, hav-
ing been rejected by a great number of directors before finally being
offered to Verhoeven, who had just come to the United States. After di-
recting a series of successful films in his native Netherlands, he had run
afoul of a highly politicized government film committee and was find-
ing it increasingly difficult to obtain funding for his projects. Shortly af-
ter arriving in America in 1986, he accepted the RoboCop project, even
though, as he readily admits, he initially “thought it was too silly to
do,”4 and in light of his past work, it certainly seemed a most unlikely
fit for him. As Verhoeven explains, in his Dutch films “everything was
based on reality,” but with RoboCop, as well as such subsequent sci-
ence fiction efforts as Total Recall (1990), Starship Troopers (1998), and
Hollow Man (2000), he had to move into the realm of “non-reality. There
is nothing real here – it’s all fantasy,” a fantasy that, he fortunately rec-
ognized, offered resonances of a classic tale about human artifice, Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein.5 Of course, that dichotomous explanation Ver-
hoeven offers is a bit disarming and disingenuous, for despite the dis-
claimer, RoboCop as it was realized contains much that is real; at any
rate, much that the studio saw as so real that it posed a threat to the
project’s prospects – particularly a far too real violent content.6 The
director’s initial impulse was to exaggerate the action and violent con-
tent that the script called for, to try for, as Verhoeven puts it, a “comic-
book, over-the-top violence,” in fact, something “so completely over-
the-top that it was just funny.” However, the initial cut did not strike
quite the intended tone with either studio executives or the Motion Pic-
ture Association of America ratings board; and after repeated editing
in efforts to remove the X rating it at first received, the film seemed to
become “more real and more violent.”7 However, that very combina-
tion of fantastic and realistic impulses, as well as the way in which one

can easily shade into the other, even prompt the interrogation of the
other, speaks tellingly about the uncanny nature of this film.
As has already been noted, the uncanny narrative is, in effect, about
the workings of the human mind and its impact on our sense of the real.
In the typical uncanny story, the fantastic projections of the mind –
dreams, reveries, hallucinations – essentially become reality for an in-
dividual, as we see most clearly in a horror film like Alfred Hitchcock’s
Psycho (1960), wherein Norman Bates effectively becomes his murder-
ous mother. This situation is at the heart of a number of Verhoeven
films. The Fourth Man (1983), for example, plays with that fragile bound-
ary between mind and matter with its tale of a writer who begins hav-
ing disturbing visions about his new lover, visions that suggest she
might be planning to kill him, as she may also have done to her three
previous husbands; but whether he is simply hallucinating or having
psychic premonitions about his impending murder, we never learn.
With Total Recall Verhoeven translated that uncanny situation into an
elaborate, other-world science fiction context. Its protagonist apparen-
tly aids a group of rebels in defeating a repressive government on Mars
and transforms the very atmosphere of the planet into one that can
support life; but at the moment of triumph, he realizes that he might
simply be dreaming all of these events, that he might be “recalling” a
scenario that has been implanted in his brain. At the same time, in the
uncanny text the distorting or distorted mind of the protagonist typi-
cally plays against our own sense of the real; for it presupposes a “nat-
ural” world beyond those strange effects.
That resulting tension is especially significant, however, for as Rose-
mary Jackson offers, the fantastic element thus tends “to hollow out
the ‘real’ world, making it strange,” in effect, “subverting” our sense
of both reality and self,8 calling what we would think of as natural into
question and thereby posing a challenge to the cultural norm. In this
context we might recall Darko Suvin’s description of science fiction as
a “literature of cognitive estrangement,”9 a form intent on defamiliariz-
ing reality. What Jackson tries to do is to anchor that defamiliarization
in a pointedly social context, thereby suggesting that the fantastic text
interrogates our world, our reality, precisely in hopes of altering its
seemingly monolithic nature. Although RoboCop does not provide us
with the sort of generative unconscious that drives films like The Fourth
Man and Total Recall or, to some extent, a classic science fiction movie
like Forbidden Planet, it does set the human mind at the very center of
its narrative and uses that focus, as have so many films that tell a story
166 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

about human artifice, as a way of examining both our individual and

social reality. In this regard, RoboCop can serve as an especially useful
model for gauging how the science fiction film comes to take on the
sort of social relevance that many of its detractors simply refuse to
One way in which it does so, of course, is through its development
of that theme of “special causality,” a motif that here entwines the
workings of economics, scientific development, and pure chance to
suggest the variety of forces that operate upon the psyche, that shape
the self, that throughout this tale of a cyborg’s creation seem to rede-
fine human nature itself. Embodying that economic imperative is the
multinational conglomerate Omni Consumer Products or OCP, a com-
pany that functions as the unseen and seemingly irresistible causal
principle, as it sets about redesigning the human environment – replac-
ing Old Detroit with the gleaming modern planned community of Delta
City, complete, as we eventually learn, even to an element of planned
crime and corruption. However, before it can do so, OCP finds that it
must distract and pacify the urban population by bombarding people
with commercials and public relations ploys, and especially by elim-
inating or controlling the current criminal elements. In effect, it sets
about creating a kind of roboticized populace, one that will allow it to
carry out its plans for their future, that will assist in its own subjuga-
tion. Hence, the “RoboCop” of the title and the central figure of this
narrative signify a similar sort of roboticization, a cultural one such as
we find more elaborately worked out in a film like THX 1138. Although
not already accomplished as Lucas envisions, that roboticization, this
narrative suggests, is certainly well under way, driven by a variety of
social forces, but especially by the economic system under which this
culture functions.
The creation of the specific RoboCop or cyborg crime-fighter under-
scores how our sense of self might become complicit with and funda-
mentally subject to those forces, and particularly to a world of indus-
trial design and corporate planning. To create this amalgam of man and
machine, the industrial giant OCP must first obtain a “human chassis”
for its project. As company vice-president Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer)
coldly but cryptically explains the plan, in order to prepare for the
RoboCop cyborg program, “We’ve restructured the police department
and placed prime candidates according to risk factors.” This obfuscat-
ing jargon thinly veils OCP’s commodification of the self, its transfer-
ring of certain officers – risk takers or “poor schmucks,” as they are

variously styled here – to dangerous precincts where, the program di-

rectors expect, they will be either killed or so disabled that they will
provide the company with the biological base for its new “urban paci-
fication” prototype. When officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is pre-
dictably shot to pieces, then, he becomes simply a piece of useful prop-
erty, more valuable to the company’s bottom line in his near-death
condition than alive. As one OCP executive explains, “He signed a re-
lease form when he joined the force. He’s legally dead. We can do pret-
ty much what we want” with him. The result of this corporate planning
of the self, combined with the individual’s signing over of rights – or
“release” – is a new sort of being, part man, part machine, and one
whose mind essentially becomes a projection of OCP’s dictates. From
this Faustian bargain comes RoboCop, a being that, as Morton suc-
cinctly puts it, “doesn’t have a name; he’s got a program. He’s product”
[Fig. 60]. It is in that very description that the irony of the company’s
name begins to show through. Omni Consumer Products suggests the
modern corporate world and its bottom-line concern not just with cre-
ating products for the consuming public, all sorts of products, but with
transforming the consumer into product and ultimately with consuming
the very public it purports to serve.
This perversion of economic forces springs from another sort of fan-
tastic causality here – yet one with which every science fiction viewer
is already familiar. A key question driving most science fiction is not
what we should do with our scientific knowledge, but rather, given a
particular power, what we can do with it. In the face of scientific pos-
sibility, ethical questions such as those about free will or the soul are
usually elided, a point made over and over in the many Frankenstein
films. In this case, OCP, in order to carry out its larger goal of trans-
forming Old Detroit into the futuristic Delta City, has set its various
technological branches to work solving the problems involved in that
transformation, foremost among them the pacification of unruly el-
ements of society. The twin programs it has created are the cyborg
RoboCop and ED 209, a completely mechanical “enforcement ’droid.”
When the latter suffers a major malfunction, or “technical glitch,” as
executive officer Dick Jones terms it, resulting in the slaughter of a mi-
nor company executive, it opens the door for the RoboCop program,
while also pointing up the dangers in enthroning that reason–science–
technology triad, in giving it life-or-death powers over humanity. Pro-
duced by another sort of Faustian compact, the combined efforts of
medical science and the computer industry, RoboCop is a human torso
168 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

onto which powerful mechanical prostheses have been grafted and in-
to which memory chips and a controlling software program have been
implanted. When the doctors announce that they have managed to
save one of Murphy’s human arms, Bob Morton orders them to ampu-
tate it anyway, suggesting the extent to which the desire to produce a
more powerful cyborg takes precedence over any human considera-
tions. With “off-the-shelf” availability and performance the key issues
– for here lies the path to company profitability – the scientific world
has simply determined to do “pretty much what we want.”
Still, the RoboCop program, in its development of that “impostor or
something” motif that comments on the irrepressible powers of the
human mind, proves no more predictable or controllable than the to-
tally mechanical ED 209 system. Though RoboCop represents an entire-
ly new sort of being, as we see when OCP engineers have a kind of
birthday party for his completion and going “on line,” he is a being that
is supposed to be moved not by his own desires, not by what we tradi-
tionally label free will, but rather by his industrially programmed brain.
That is, at the core of this creation is a program with a series of key di-
rectives, apparently modeled on Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of
Robotics: “One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through in-
action, allow a human being to come to harm. Two, . . . a robot must
obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders
would conflict with the First Law. And three, a robot must protect its
own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the
First or Second Laws.”10 Asimov designed these laws, in consultation
with John W. Campbell Jr., to suggest how humans could employ the
great power afforded by robotics while also maintaining control over
their creations, rendering them, in effect, fail-safe. However, in the case
of RoboCop those controlling directives serve a more satiric function,
suggesting how the corporation and especially its chief executive offi-
cers might use such programming to place themselves and their deter-
minations beyond the reach of the “law” as they have reconstituted it,
even beyond RoboCop’s seemingly irresistible power. Nevertheless,
the film also quickly suggests the frailty of such technological causal-
ity, when RoboCop’s programming begins to fail as he experiences
spontaneous flashbacks – that is, as he begins dreaming and, in those
dreams, recalling his past life: his home, family, the criminals who mur-
dered him, and ultimately even his human identity. An engineer’s ex-
planation that “the system was never designed to experience detailed
somatic response” simply reminds us how much our scientific plan-
ning fails to account for, how much of the human still falls outside of

Figure 60. RoboCop, the perfect technological crime-fighter, goes into action.

its purview, how much can never be programmed or explained. Of

course, it is a problem with which the scientific world is quite familiar.
In an interview, Verhoeven has focused attention on the Heisenberg un-
certainty principle, the law of physics that schematizes an inevitable
indeterminacy or uncertainty in all scientific calculation, and thus the
necessity of “different realities” or different interpretations of reality.11
It is a law that indicates, if not the play of chance or randomness, at
least the unpredictable nature of this world, in spite of the best efforts
of our science at rendering it a rational, predictable, and thus thor-
oughly controllable system.
170 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

These various sorts of causality, as we have already noted, lead

directly into RoboCop’s most important uncanny element, its develop-
ment of the double or doppelgänger theme. As Rosemary Jackson ex-
plains, the fantastic image of the double typically suggests the “disper-
sal and fragmentation” of character and of mind itself, and thus a most
fundamental threat to our common notion that we are “unified, rational
selves,”12 our usual sense of the individual as a whole and unique sub-
ject [Fig. 61]. In its image of the cyborg policeman, RoboCop offers an
obvious objectification of this threat, not only insofar as it instigates
a variety of other doublings that constellate around the cyborg, but
also as it implicates the “law,” the reign of normalcy to which every-
one is supposedly bound, even the “real” as consensus would have it.
Through the cyborg, of course, not only Murphy but the human itself
is doubled, presented as something that is easily dismembered, frag-
mented, and prone to a variety of de/reconstructions. Moreover, by
identifying that figure – and indeed, the very regime of duplication –
as part of the world of law enforcement, as a kind of em-body-ment of
the rules of society, the film lays bare a fundamental cultural bias: how
the law itself functions as an index of the real, the right, and the true,
of reality as it is ideologically established and subtly affirmed in the
everyday workings of life.
The key mechanism for that revelation, of course, is the system of
doublings that this film offers, as characters, events, and things all find
another side projected for comparison. Officer Murphy, as the narra-
tive early on establishes, in an effort to amuse his son adopts charac-
teristics of the television hero T. J. Lazer, a doubling that foreshadows
his transformation into another sort of mechanized and mediated hero,
RoboCop. Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the corrupt chief executive of OCP,
has his doubles in both the criminal mastermind with whom he works,
Clarence Boddecker (Kurtwood Smith), and in the up-and-coming ju-
nior executive Bob Morton, his chief rival at OCP. Murphy also has an-
other sort of double in his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), who sub-
sequently becomes RoboCop’s partner, and, when she is shot up by
Boddecker’s gang, just as Murphy was, potentially another RoboCop:
As she lies badly wounded near the film’s end, he reassures her that
OCP will fix her up just like him, since “they fix everything.” In the pat-
tern of repeated events, we might think of the scene that anticipates
Murphy’s fate, as a young executive who happens to be standing near-
by, another “poor schmuck,” is volunteered for the ED 209 demon-
stration and subsequently shot to pieces. Similarly, the initial hunt for
Boddecker’s gang at the abandoned factory reverses itself in the film’s

Figure 61. The double or doppelgänger theme visualized as RoboCop appre-

hends his own “killer.”

culminating shootout, as the gang hunts down RoboCop in the same

place. The hostage drama in which a deposed city councilman holds
the mayor and his staff under threat of violence prefigures the climac-
tic confrontation in which Dick Jones holds the OCP president hostage.
Of course, a most fundamental sort of doubling is the generative force
for the entire narrative, as Old Detroit is about to be transformed – like
Murphy into RoboCop – into the gleaming planned metropolis, Delta
City. As we eventually learn, the chief agent of this transformation, OCP,
not only runs the privatized police force of Old Detroit but is also,
through Dick Jones, in charge of organized crime in the area. Moreover,
in a nod to the pervasive influence of the military–industrial complex,
OCP proves to be not only the largest corporation in this futuristic
United States, but also, as Jones proudly asserts, “We practically are
the military.” Through this complex pattern of doublings we begin to
see a world of multiple possibilities and people of multiple personal-
ities, both equally unstable and hard to sort out. Striking at any sense
of a fixed or knowable reality, as well as a stable and knowable self,
172 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

these doublings carry out much of the subversive work of this fantasy
One further element of these doublings deserves more detailed ex-
amination for the way it speaks to one of the most common themes in
American science fiction. At the center of this pattern, of course, is the
Murphy/RoboCop double, an amalgam of human and machine in which
is inscribed that fundamental science fiction motif we earlier termed
“kiss and tell.” As the opening chapter detailed, this motif emphasizes
the importance of feelings or emotions in understanding, expressing,
and maintaining our sense of humanity, especially in light of an ascen-
dant rational regime; even in the most highly technologized environ-
ment, this motif suggests, our feelings or emotions remain the “telling”
marks of human nature, a stable foundation on which we can rely. We
find variations on this theme across the entire register of science fic-
tion, as in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), for example, when the extra-
terrestrial reminds his human friend that, although he must leave, he
will remain in his heart. Similarly, the Terminator of Terminator 2: Judg-
ment Day (1991) indicates that he has come to understand humans
when he tells his young master, “Now I know why you cry”; and Luke
Skywalker of Star Wars (1977) learns that he must “feel the force” and
rely on it rather than on his computer if he wishes to destroy the Em-
pire’s Death Star. In RoboCop we early on learn about Murphy’s feelings
for his family, feelings underscored by RoboCop’s recurring dreams
of them and especially of Murphy’s wife saying, “I love you.” Those
dreams, in fact, are crucial here, for they remind us that, whereas OCP
can order an arm amputated or implant memory chips and control-
ling software, there are some things over which it can exercise no con-
trol – things it can only dismiss from consideration or impotently la-
bel “glitches,” yet also things that persist and drive our actions. Even
as Murphy is renamed, reprogrammed by science, and reconstructed
with an indestructible titanium shell and mechanical prostheses, even
as he is to all appearances transformed into the perfect mechanical
double and fail-safe extension of OCP’s power, a powerful human im-
pulse remains that produces those “somatic responses,” that recalls
the emotional bonds of his family. Love persists, even if only as a
dream. Thus, as RoboCop tries to come to grips with his strangely dou-
ble self, he fixates on his family, inquires about them, and confesses
to his partner Anne, “I can feel them, but I can’t remember them.”
Nevertheless, feeling is what, finally, signals the real victory over a
cultural doubling and the personal fragmentation that RoboCop de-

Figure 62. Officer Lewis helps restore Murphy’s identity as she asks him for
his name, in RoboCop.

scribes. Certainly, Murphy’s loss of life is linked with his loss of loved
ones, as we see in the images of his wife, child, and home that appar-
ently come flooding into his memory at the point of death. Reconstitut-
ed as a “product,” driven by software, he seems devoid of any emotion,
as we see in his cold, seemingly programmed response to the woman
he saves from a rape attempt by two thugs. With the sudden onset of
dreams, a return of human feelings – even sundered from real memo-
ry, which OCP has tried to erase, as if it were simply dealing with a ma-
chine – the narrative shifts to independent action and offers an accom-
panying sense of triumph.
At this point, instead of merely responding in a behavioral, mecha--
nistic manner to calls on the police radio, RoboCop sets about learning
of his own history by plugging into police computer files and acting on
his own. When frustrated in those efforts by Dick Jones’s attempts to
destroy him, RoboCop is saved by Anne, who becomes a kind of re-
placement or double for his wife [Fig. 62], as she lovingly protects and
174 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

cares for him. Particularly, we should note the scene at the old factory
where she shelters him. As Anne offers assistance, RoboCop removes
his helmet and visor – prominently marked with the OCP trademark –
and reveals his human face for the first time. Noting that his “targeting
system is a little messed up,” he asks Anne to “aim for me,” in effect,
to help him regain a human direction or purpose. The resulting scene
is a sexually overdetermined one, as she embraces his body, holds his
arm and hand, even strokes the arm, directs his raised gun/phallus,
and tells him “that should be about right,” as he blasts away at the jars
of baby food that OCP had been feeding him. Brought back to life, he
has very quickly reached a new maturity and, through his lingering
ability to feel, cast off the restrictive grid associated with his helmet
and visor that has conditioned and limited how he sees and functions
in this world (just as he will later manage to get around the restrictive
program that protects OCP executives). With that new “aim,” RoboCop
seems ready to live in this world not as a robot or machine, or baby,
but as a feeling human being, perhaps even a sexual being – Murphy
once again.
This development – or redevelopment – of a human aspect already
points toward a final uncanny dimension of the film, its depiction of
what Todorov describes as the “collapse of the limits between matter
and mind.”13 Certainly, one of the great fears this narrative explores is
just such a collapse, a breakdown of various conventional boundaries,
but especially that between human and machine. That sort of fear
seems a rather natural reflection of American cultural anxieties of the
1980s, facing as it was the new challenges posed by thinking machines,
biomedical engineering, mechanical prostheses, and readily available
cosmetic surgery – by the great variety of technological developments
that promise to reengineer the human or perhaps even render us obso-
lete. The figure of RoboCop may simply seem a somewhat exaggerated
tracing or foreboding of the trajectory we might all one day follow; yet
it is a tracing that we also see played out in a variety of more subtle
ways throughout the narrative, such as the way that the commercials
interspersed in the story market the latest in mechanical hearts, the
way that Murphy’s home is turned over to a robotic realtor, or the way
that OCP has set in motion its various projects for replacing all human
officers with law-enforcement machines. Driven in large part by the
world of commerce that has itself blurred the boundaries between
business and government, a cultural transformation and even replace-
ment of the human already seems well under way here.

Undergirding these effects is a more pervasive and finally more per-

nicious boundary blurring that we see sketched out as well in Verhoe-
ven’s other science fiction films. Total Recall, for example, intersperses
news programs and commercials throughout the narrative, and Star-
ship Troopers frames its entire story with news broadcasts and propa-
ganda films. Similarly, in RoboCop various news broadcasts and com-
mercials are used to provide important narrative information and to
establish the satiric tone that dominates the film. However, even be-
yond these interpolated media events, we find evidence of a world
that has become totally reliant on the media and its packaging and re-
presentation of reality. For example, when Dick Jones makes his pitch
for the ED 209 program, he does so by deploying a wall of televisions
offering a montage of commercial images, all depicting OCP’s most suc-
cessful technological programs. Repeatedly, even as chaos breaks out
in Old Detroit, we see citizens seemingly mesmerized by a comedy pro-
gram on television. In addition, Murphy, as we have already noted,
models his fast draw on his son’s television hero, T. J. Lazer. What is
being crafted in all of these instances is a pervasive video culture, an
environment characterized by what the French theorist Paul Virilio has
described as a “cinematic derealization”14 of our world, as all that we
commonly think of as real blurs into its video/cinematic representa-
tions. It is this effect, this more fundamental “collapse of limits,” that
makes possible the problematic sense of reality that we find in all of
Verhoeven’s science fiction films, the troubling and indeed widespread
sense that, as he puts it, “there are different realities possible at the
same moment.”15 With its constant references to a cinematic environ-
ment, to the whole “apparatus of deception”16 that obscures our basic
sense of reality and enables a confusion between human and machine,
RoboCop suggests how we have increasingly come to inhabit a fantas-
tic world and unwittingly give ourselves over to its uncanny regime.
In light of this emphasis on “cinematic derealization,” we might re-
consider the opening promise the film makes with its selection from
the television news show Mediabreak. The first words we hear in the
film are that show’s catch phrase: “You give us three minutes and we’ll
give you the world.” More than just a satiric comment on modern cul-
ture’s short attention span and the media’s own proclivity for the
“newsbite” over any sort of substantive coverage, that phrase seems
to indicate another sort of Faustian bargain at work here, a promise to
deliver up all the world in exchange for very little, just three minutes
of our time – in effect, for our treating the world so slightingly. It is a
176 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

variation, as well, on the promise OCP holds out, as it offers to provide

the citizens of Old Detroit with a veritable new city if they will simply
acquiesce to its methods, pay no mind to its abuses of their freedoms,
or even its symbiotic systematizing of crime and law enforcement.
What RoboCop thereby suggests is the extent to which, through an on-
going habit of compromise, we have all assisted in the trivialization of
our world and the cheapening of life itself.
Nothwithstanding, the film also seems to hold out an element of
hope against that pattern through both its satiric strikes at the appa-
ratus of deception and its resolution that restores at least some of
those boundaries. RoboCop is, finally, a darkly satiric fantasy, much in
the tradition of the work of Jonathan Swift and as intent as Swift’s work
in prodding us into change. In this context, we might consider the way
RoboCop/Murphy turns the tables on Dick Jones. In front of the pres-
ident of OCP, using the same wall of video monitors Jones had previ-
ously employed for his ED 209 presentation, this mechanical mediation
of humanity (RoboCop) replays a confession he has recorded, thereby
turning the media against Jones. In the process, RoboCop turns his fail-
safe programming against him as well, when the company president
fires Jones and thus eliminates him from the sanctuary of “Directive
4,” which protects all OCP executives from RoboCop; and with Jones
removed, we gather, a number of those other “limits” or boundaries
may well be restored. At least the link between organized crime and
big business seems broken, and a world that has, at every turn, denied
individuality – through its corporate yes-men, its lowest-common-
denominator television programming, and especially the assertion that
RoboCop “doesn’t have a name; he’s got a program. He’s product” –
seems to make room for the subjectivity of Murphy. Thus, in the film’s
final lines OCP’s president acknowledges the human identity at the
core of his company’s technological marvel, remarking, “Nice shoot-
ing, son. What’s your name?” and receiving the simple reply, “Murphy.”
As Verhoeven explains these concluding comments, they seem to sug-
gest RoboCop’s “acceptance of what he has become, of having less and
having more. He has taken control of what they have done to him, be-
coming Murphy again, but in a new way.”17 While that affirmation of
identity may appear a small thing, especially in light of the pervasive
and powerful technological and cultural forces arrayed against it, con-
spiring to excise human consciousness and to manipulate that of the
consuming public, it remains a victory over those forces, indicates they
are indeed vulnerable to resistance, and suggests something of the

subversive potential that Jackson sees as fundamental to all fantasy

Before embracing this sort of subversive vision wholeheartedly,
though, we might once more recall Verhoeven’s explanation of how his
movies frequently suggest that “different realities [are] possible at the
same moment.”18 As a further gloss on his film’s conclusion, then, let
us consider a rather similar film about a security robot fashioned by
the military–industrial complex, the Australian science fiction film
Hardware (1990). As a government-fashioned “defense” robot runs
amok, we hear on the sound track at film’s end a kind of anthem song
for this self-destructing world, one that repeats the lines, “This is what
you want? This is what you get.” It is a message that resonates espe-
cially for the ending of RoboCop, and one that speaks to a number of
similar uncanny science fiction texts. Such films, in the best fantasy
tradition, often seem to pose both a question and a warning: a ques-
tion about our desires for the self and a warning about the conse-
quences of following through on those desires, particularly of tracing
the trajectory that the reason–science–technology triad seems to be
staking out for remaking and effectively transforming the self. Though
RoboCop leaves us on a seemingly triumphant note – with a cyborg
Murphy returning to a sense of self, to a kind of self-consciousness,
marked especially by his removal of his dehumanizing helmet, his mo-
mentary freedom from the secret “Directive 4,” and his naming of him-
self – that triumph, in the best tradition of Swiftian satire, must still ring
a bit hollow, seem a rather weak sort of subversion, even given Verhoe-
ven’s commentary. After all, Murphy remains a strange hybrid, more
machine than human, a Frankenstein’s monster for a new age, and still
bound by that series of prime directives programmed into his very
Perhaps a more precise reading would suggest that this resolution
is the best we could hope for in such circumstances, the best that a
postmodern, thoroughly technologized culture such as ours will allow.
Such a resolution remains troubling, however, much like the ending to
Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers in which we are reassured that, despite
humanity’s many losses in its war against the insects of the planet Klen-
dathu, we shall “keep on fighting,” continue unquestioningly along a
violent, dehumanizing path that has already reduced us to little more
than insects ourselves. If this is all that we want, RoboCop similarly sug-
gests, this is probably all that we shall ever get – a poor, dehumanizing
compromise, a happy acceptance of our own “objectification” by a
178 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

world of corporate planning and violent behavior. In examining a num-

ber of recent science fiction films, Barry Grant points up precisely the
genre’s general ability to pose such challenges, noting that, “like the
horror film, the science fiction genre has the potential for a progressive
resistance to dominant ideology.”19 However, he argues that most com-
monly the form does not live up to that potential, that it “consistently
offers . . . not an exploration but an exaggeration and exploitation of
the ideological problems” that are most pressing.20 On the one hand,
then, a film like RoboCop might well be read simply as an “exploitation”
of ideological issues, such as the place of the individual in a corporate-
controlled world; but on the other, and like many other of those in this
“uncanny” vein, it also seems a nice measure of the genre’s potential,
precisely because of the way in which it confronts us with the sort of
weak compromises to which we are prone.
This confrontation, moreover, springs precisely from the very un-
canny character of the film; for through its strange, borderline figure,
caught between human and machine, between mind and matter, it fore-
grounds our humanness and locates it in a consciousness that con-
tributes to the construction of the world we inhabit – one that, in fact,
has been targeted by that world precisely because of its unwitting par-
ticipation in its construction. RoboCop argues that this sort of science
fiction film finds its focus in a most fundamental human problem: the
place of consciousness in a culture devoted to the machine. In a world
that has increasingly elevated the mechanical, especially the mechan-
ical brain, to a place of prominence, and that, in the process, has in-
creasingly replaced thought, consideration, and the human weighing
of values with a mechanic computing of choices, with the prediction
of profits and losses, with bottom-line thinking, this focus finally seems
something more than an exploitation of the dominant ideology. In fact,
this concern with the persistence of consciousness and its active and
persistent work in constructing this world seems to probe beneath the
surface of our ideology to a more personal, human level, to release, as
it were, the anxieties that simply cannot be alleviated or contained by
so many of our films’ revisions or restructurings of society.
Crossing Genre Boundaries /
Bound by Fantasy
The Fly (1986)

hroughout this overview of the science fiction film we have been
using a pointedly discriminatory approach in order to sort out
what for many seems a rather amorphous and unwieldy genre.
That is, we have turned to contemporary discussions of fantasy and
employed those discrete distinctions made by Todorov between the
marvelous, fantastic, and uncanny varieties of fantasy in order to help
distinguish some of the primary narrative types of science fiction film
and to account for some of the genre’s appeal. However, the fact re-
mains that all of these films occupy some fairly problematic generic
ground, a point often evident in critical commentary on them. In his
early but still useful history of the horror film, Carlos Clarens, like a
number of others, simply treated science fiction as part of the cinemat-
ic territory. Working from an affective approach to genre, that is, con-
sidering it in terms of how it primarily affected viewers, he saw science
fiction as just another variation of a form usually aimed at producing
a sense of shock, fear, or surprise in its audience. Similarly focusing on
effects, Bruce Kawin too has described how hard it is for most of us to
draw reliable boundaries between horror and science fiction, even as
he suggests that trying to do so can serve us “in the interest of working
toward a definition” of either genre.1 Although for the most part the
present study has sidestepped that issue of crossed boundaries in fa-
vor of a unified and more tightly focused examination of science fiction
– that is, in favor of a limited but critically useful vantage – we also need
to acknowledge and explore the extent to which the science fiction film
does connect with other formulas, to which it follows the dictum of-
fered by Rick Altman, that “Hollywood’s stock-in-trade is the romantic
combination of genres, not the classical practice of generic purity.”2
To begin that exploration, this chapter focuses on a film that very
pointedly seems to straddle, with its many legs, the horror and science
fiction forms: David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of Kurt Neumann’s 1958
film The Fly.

❖ 179
180 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

Before turning to this most recent rendering of The Fly, we first need
to establish the context within which the film works, a context much
like the half-human, half-fly subject of the film – that of generic cross-
breeds. As an aid we might consider what is probably the key text for
all such discussions, the oft-filmed story of Frankenstein, which, in its
many variations, but particularly the most famous film version of this
story, James Whale’s 1931 adaptation, situates the work of science
within a context pointedly designed to create a horrific recoil in the au-
dience. Sourced in a literary type – the Gothic horror tale – that seems
quite secure in its own generic lineage, the 1931 Frankenstein is obvi-
ously the product of a new era and new attitude. Produced at the
height of what we term the Machine Age, this film couches its account
of nineteenth-century grave robbing and stitched-together bodies in
decidedly twentieth-century technological terms. The charnel-house
atmosphere, brooding, Romantic characters, and even the image of a
rather horrific “new Adam” of Mary Shelley’s novel all dissolve into a
spectacle of electrically driven, machine-produced life, after the fash-
ion that we find in such less generically problematic science fiction
films of the same era as Six Hours to Live (1932), The Man They Could
Not Hang (1939), and Man Made Monster (1941). The typical horror tra-
jectory, that which, as Kawin observes, travels “into the unconscious
and through the implications of evil and of dream,”3 and which is prom-
inent enough throughout the novel, in this film version shifts into a fo-
cus on how our science and technology play upon those unconscious
impulses and evil dreams of horror, how they draw out or seduce from
us – just as they do the scientist Henry Frankenstein (named Victor in
the novel) – those desires for power and creation.
One quite specific effect of that shift, as Caroline Picart argues, is to
alter radically the narrative’s cultural commentary, as the film “severe-
ly delimits Mary Shelley’s disturbing critique of the Romantic politics
of gender.”4 Yet as Frank McConnell notes, a further and far more funda-
mental effect, as well as one that points up the work’s kinship to most
of our science fiction films, arises from the self-referential dimension
bound up in its technological emphasis; for with that emphasis, Frank-
enstein reflexively evokes the specter of another kind of creative dream
machinery fueled by seductive power, that is, the technology of film.
As McConnell suggests, the creation of the monster as it is visualized
here prods viewers into the “realization that the monster is made pos-
sible by precisely the techniques and technologies which also allow us
to believe in the humanity of the other characters in the story,”5 that

is, by the mechanism of the cinema itself, which has crafted all of these
figures and which derives much of its narrative power from the con-
struction of character types; yet even without that sort of reflexive
frisson and thematics, without the specter of a life conjured up from a
machine, Frankenstein seems very much a tale concerned with the con-
scious as much as the unconscious, with science as much as with evil,
with our waking fixations as much as with our troubling dreams. In ef-
fect, it seems to prompt its own sort of fantastic “hesitation,” not sim-
ply in terms of the source of its challenge to understanding but in terms
of the very frame we might try to place around the tale as we try to
understand its generic thrust, and that, I would suggest, is a key to its
appeal: the way in which it breaks down easy categories, easy distinc-
tions between the nineteenth century and the present-day, easy frames
of reference that might let us hold its reality at a safe remove and pre-
vent it from challenging or infecting our own.
Nevertheless, Frankenstein is hardly unique in this regard, as prac-
tically every moviegoer, reflecting upon his or her experiences, will
quickly recognize. Whale’s subsequent effort, The Bride of Frankenstein
(1935), as well as the more recent Frankenstein Unbound (1990), clearly
follows in this same conflicted vein. In addition, the ongoing debates
over how one might classify and interpret such works as The Thing
from Another World (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and
Alien (1979) largely spring from the same sort of dual codes that typi-
cally operate in such texts, codes that, for example, can by turns warn
us against “curiosity,” as Kawin believes horror films always do,6 and
yet also insist on the necessity of that same curiosity, as when in its
conclusion The Thing . . . enjoins us to “Watch the skies; keep watch-
ing.” If Frankenstein seems in its ending to shut down all curiosity, with
its scientist-protagonist freed from his monstrous obsessions, the mon-
ster itself apparently destroyed, and a normal life with his new bride
established, it is only after the film has effectively argued for that same
curiosity by linking it with science and modernity, and contrasting it
with a pointedly outmoded and regressive approach to human knowl-
edge, with a nineteenth-century rather than a twentieth-century sort
of attitude.
Frankenstein’s specific science fiction thematics also tend to pull the
narrative in varying directions, all the while combining to interrogate
our own reality. It offers its own version of the “kiss and tell” motif we
have earlier described, with Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée and later bride
trying to come between him and his monster, seeking to bring him back
182 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

to normalcy and heterosexual intimacy through her pleadings of love.

The conclusion, with husband and wife safely ensconced in their mar-
riage bed and everyone drinking a toast to a “new heir” to the house
of Frankenstein, underscores the powerful work of the emotions or
feelings in reaffirming our basic humanity – not to mention a culturally
confirmed normalcy. Put quite simply, it suggests that we are, after all,
finally that which we create through our love for each other; and yet
its specific inflection of the “imposter or something” motif, its empha-
sis on the scarred, stitched, and bolted together monster that has ef-
fectively taken Frankenstein’s name, historically become his double,
troubles that issue of human creation. After all, the monster too is the
scientist’s “offspring,” the child of desire to which he – unnaturally –
gives birth with sparks and poppings of machinery, with a mechanical
rather than biological labor, and it is a creation that pointedly horrifies
at first glance. Rather than the sort of shock of recognition at our own
humanness that often accompanies this motif in the science fiction
genre, that motif here clouds the issue of our humanity. It confronts us
with the unnatural notion and product of a male-only procreation, as
well as the frightening prospect that humanity itself could be little
more than a constructed thing – if not something so pointedly stitched
together from stolen and scavenged parts, still a construct of sorts
with no real essence or identity.

This sort of conflicted, liminal character, we might surmise, may well

have been one of the attractions David Cronenberg found in the narra-
tive of The Fly. It is a story that had already established a successful
hold on fantasy audiences through the production of a string of suc-
cessful science fiction–horror crossbreeds in an earlier era: The Fly
(1958), The Return of the Fly (1959), and The Curse of the Fly (1965). Cro-
nenberg himself is a figure who throughout his career seems to have
gravitated to such “mutant” narratives, that is, to ones that call into
question any firm boundaries between science fiction and horror, or,
as we have already noted, between Canadian and American sensibili-
ties. Moreover, those narratives are typically ones that literalize that
“cross-over” effect in their central imagery, as in the case of his earlier
Rabid (1978), in which a plastic surgeon’s tissue transplant takes on
a blood-sucking life of its own, or Videodrome (1982), wherein violent
video transmissions produce in the protagonist hallucinations that he
has a videocassette player in his stomach. In The Fly that effect takes
its most obvious form in a story about scientific experimentation with
teleportation that produces a mutant fly–human. Thus, in his overview

Figure 63. Ronnie and Seth recoil at the sight of the first matter-transport ex-
periment in The Fly (1986).

of the filmmaker’s career, Chris Rodley argues that “horror was not the
genre” Cronenberg was trying to work in; but rather, he has consistent-
ly tried “to market films which are part horror, part science-fiction, part
psychological thrillers and, therefore, something else.”7 And Bart Testa
theorizes that much of the difficulty audiences and critics have with
the “extremities” of Cronenberg’s films arises from the manner in which
they slip away from easy classification, as they offer the sort of seman-
tics that invite a reading from the vantage of traditional horror films,
yet consistently couch those elements within the syntax of postmod-
ern science fiction narratives.8 Lending credence to these explanations
is Cronenberg’s own commentary, that “My films are sui generis. It
would be nice if they could form their own genre.”9 What that genre
comprises, what that “something else” is, might best be seen by exam-
ining The Fly in the context we have established in our prior discus-
sion, that is, in light of the fantastic and its variant strains.
Obviously, the film sends mixed signals that suggest we read it by
turns as horror film and as science fiction tale. The scientist Seth Brun-
dle’s (Jeff Goldblum) veiled comments on his failed experiments in tele-
portation point toward something horrific, and his early effort to tele-
port a baboon, which produces only a bloody, throbbing mass that he
describes as the baboon “turned inside out,” materializes that shock-
ing potential [Fig. 63] and prepares us for Seth’s own later gruesome
184 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

transformation into an insect. Another pointed sign shows up when

the reporter Ronnie (Geena Davis) enters her apartment and, hearing
strange noises, slowly moves toward the bathroom and yanks back the
shower curtain to reveal her publisher and former boyfriend, Stathis
(John Getz), who has let himself in and is simply cleaning up. It is a sly
echo – thanks particularly to its role reversals – of the famous shower
scene in Psycho (1960), here employed as a suspense-building mecha-
nism and signpost to suggest the sort of shocks this film might yet have
in store for us. Moreover, the grisly stages in Seth’s transformation into
the new creature, Brundlefly, recall the familiar pattern of monstrous
metamorphoses found in many of our most famous horror films: Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in its many versions (e.g., 1931, 1941), The Wolf Man
(1941), even The Exorcist (1973). Nevertheless, Ronnie’s warning upon
seeing the physical signs of Seth’s transformation – “Be afraid! Be very
afraid!” – hardly conveys the dominant atmosphere of The Fly. While
an effective tagline, useful for advertising the film and suggesting some
of its lure, it marks a fear that never quite controls the narrative, in part
because Cronenberg treats the visceral element of the story – its con-
stant concern with “the flesh” in all its mutations – not as a point of
dread but as one of near-scientific curiosity, even necessary investiga-
tion. Moreover, that horrific sense is repeatedly balanced by what we
might think of as a generic counterweight.
After all, The Fly is a story about knowledge, about a scientist, and
about that fundamental bond between the scientist and his pursuit of
knowledge. As a context, it offers us a number of the semantic and syn-
tactic elements we have come to expect in contemporary science fic-
tion narratives: the computer, a lab, strange equipment, talk of project
funding, a series of experiments, the recording of results. Above all, it
focuses on a familiar type, the scientist who initially seems something
of a nerd. Seth Brundle is unable to drink, he seems obsessed with the
project he has been working on for the last six years, and a look in his
closet reveals that all of his clothes are exactly the same (so that he
doesn’t “have to expend any thought” on what to wear). Seth, we learn,
was a boy genius who was “an inch away from the Nobel Prize for
Physics” at age twenty and is now, as he simply asserts, “working on
something that will change the world and human life as we know it.”
Yet he clearly lacks the requisite knowledge for that scientific break-
through. As he admits, he is at heart “really a systems analyst man,”
one who knows “too little about the flesh,” about organic life and its
complexities, to work out his grand scheme of human teleportation

Figure 64. Seth tries to program what he knows about “the flesh” into his com-
puter in The Fly.

[Fig. 64]. In the fashion of many such narratives and in keeping with
the “stop trying to rationalize” motif previously discussed, he is the
scientist who must learn precisely what his science has, up to now, not
allowed him to know, undergo an education in being human through
his newfound interest in the reporter Ronnie.
Of course, the irony here, as well as the film’s cautionary point, is
that this very education – or “curiosity,” as Kawin would describe it –
eventually pulls him further away from, even beyond, his humanity. In
seeking to learn about “the flesh,” he eventually loses his own flesh,
literally shedding his skin as he metamorphoses into Brundlefly, and
finally suffering a life-denying transformation when, in a teleportation
gone wrong, the computer “fuses” him with one of his “telepods.” Al-
though Seth eventually becomes something quite gruesome – part fly,
part machine, part human – it is an end that registers as much on the
tragic as on the horrific scale, as we recognize that this sheltered scien-
tist did indeed need to learn about “the flesh,” particularly since it is
precisely those weaknesses the flesh is heir to – drunkenness, desire,
ambition – and not simply the science here, not simply his commitment
to reason, that have brought him to this pass.
186 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

What I am suggesting, of course, is that neither the horror nor sci-

ence fiction genre quite adequately holds or describes The Fly; and this
bulking beyond generic boundaries seems quite in keeping with Cro-
nenberg’s own description of the film. Curiously, he likens it to meta-
physical poetry, to a literature “in which normally unharmonious el-
ements are violently yoked together.”10 By shifting focus, pulling back
out to the larger category of fantasy, and seeing it as a work that strad-
dles the full range of fantasy, though, we might begin to find the sense
in that violent yoking, see the film in a more revealing light, one that
shows its boundary crossings as fundamental to its key concerns.
As I have suggested, The Fly is, on the one hand, a narrative about
human impulses, about the various lures to which “the flesh” seems in-
evitably drawn. In Seth, Cronenberg offers us a figure apparently drawn
from his own experience with science and scientists in his days as an
Honours Science student at the University of Toronto. As he explains,
he consistently found the academic presentation of science to be “very
dry and alien,” and the scientist “a classic version of what scientists
are supposed to be – detached, distracted, and passionless.”11 Yet Seth,
perhaps because his career and, we might suppose, his personal life
have gone nowhere, seems ready for a change. Once he begins to move
beyond the scientific realm, once he opens the door of his ordered and
systematic world to scrutiny, to that of the reporter Ronnie and her
videotaping of his every action, and once he tries to embrace that ne-
glected and denied physical element, Seth effectively steps into what
we might well describe as an uncanny realm. His own thoughts become
the key source of disruption, the power of his own mind the chief dan-
ger. That pattern is particularly played out through his jealousy of Ron-
nie’s continued contact with Stathis, whose name evokes both his high-
er “status” and his representation of the “status quo” here. It further
surfaces in Seth’s determination to experiment on himself [Fig. 65], and
his ignoring the signs that something has gone wrong, insisting instead
that he has simply undergone “a purifying process.” Seth’s own scheme
to “change the world and human life” invests itself monstrously in him.
Seen in this context, the narrative becomes a highly ironic one and a
caution against all such hubristic assumptions.
On the other hand, we might also read The Fly as a narrative about
a kind of invasion, a marvelous encounter with an alien other that calls
into question our sense of the self as a secure and unified entity, and
of our world as a stable place. Through the accidental encounter with
the other, with a simple housefly that becomes trapped in his telepor-

Figure 65. The Fly’s Seth Brundle experiments on himself with his womblike
matter transporter.

tation pod, and his integration with it at the “molecular-genetic level,”

Seth finds that he is “becoming something that never existed before,”
the Brundlefly. That force from outside the self thus instigates not a
“purifying process,” as Seth repeatedly insists, but a kind of infection.
It results in a gradual transformation and loss of identity with which
he tries to effect some compromise – by forcing a fusion with Ronnie
– but too late. However, we should see that invasion as actually begin-
ning much earlier, in Seth’s initial encounter with another sort of alien
188 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

society, that embodied in the cocktail party at the film’s opening. Here
foundation representatives, members of the press, and the scientific
elite come together and schmooze each other for information, money,
and publicity. This strange society treats scientists as celebrities, as
figures who transcend normal human nature – and who thus might aid
us in our own desires for such transcendence, for moving beyond the
status quo. Seth, however, as we quickly recognize, is himself some-
thing of an alien in this context, an outsider, inexperienced at this game
of celebrity and/or unready for the way it is played. As a result, he too
easily gets drunk, perhaps on the potential for such status; he quickly
falls into a relationship with Ronnie, who soon becomes his own wor-
shipful fan; and he rushes precipitously into his experiments, all too
eager to demonstrate to her his rightful place in this other world. The
fly – “in the ointment,” if you will – simply renders that encounter with
the alien other in a more easily recognizable form and drives home its
darker consequences. In her discussion of another sort of alien, that
of the Alien films, Barbara Creed notes this same pattern, suggesting
that we see the alien in the context of the abject, that is, as a projection
of all that we normally exclude or repress in order to sustain our every-
day lives, even to maintain our psychic identity. The encounter with
the alien other, then, always menaces the norm, including our normal
sense of self, as “boundaries, designed to keep the abject at bay, threat-
en to disintegrate, collapse.”12 Seen from this vantage, the film be-
comes a story about our need to stay within the bounds of “the flesh,”
but also to learn about it, to know it and thus properly deal with its
drives [Fig. 66]. It is about the boundaries with which we live, as well
as our need to understand those boundaries.
Pulled in these two directions, drawn in two distinct yet ultimately
complementary generic jurisdictions, The Fly also deploys two the-
matic systems that Todorov links to these categories, what he terms
“themes of vision” and “themes of discourse,” in effect, how we see the
world and how we account for it. Under the former heading we might
especially consider as a salient example Ronnie’s intrusion of a video
camera into Seth’s life. It will, she explains, simply provide a visual rec-
ord of all of his experiments – as if the presence of such a mechanism
certified objectivity and truth. Seth’s discomfort with the camera and
Ronnie’s reminder to “talk to the tape; get in the habit” underscore the
main trajectory of that theme of vision here. It suggests how easily we
might come to objectify the self, to render it as a thing of study. Fitting-
ly, instead of providing a sure record of Seth’s experiments, the camera

Figure 66. In one of the first signs that Seth’s experiment has gone awry, he
becomes sexually predatory in The Fly.

fails to register that nearly invisible fly’s presence, which ultimately

turns these events in a tragic direction; and instead of allowing for a
better knowledge of “the flesh,” it points toward the objectifying and
ultimately dehumanizing – or flylike – vantage that Seth increasingly
comes to adopt toward both himself and others. Thus, as he begins to
deteriorate and human parts – fingernails, bits of skin, an ear – begin
to drop away, Seth gathers them together in a small box which he de-
scribes as the “Brundle Museum of Natural History.” Not horrified by
his manifest disintegration, Seth shows the box to Ronnie and laughs
at his display, immune to its horrific implications as a result of the very
distance he has achieved from himself, from the flesh, as a result of
his quite literal dis-integration from his former humanity.
At the same time that it investigates this sort of visual distance and
detachment, The Fly also develops a focus on discourse, on what To-
dorov describes as “the structuring agent of man’s relation with other
men.”13 This theme takes a variety of forms here. Ronnie, we might re-
call, appears at the cocktail party because she is trying to dig up an in-
teresting story for Particle magazine; and Seth, in an effort to present
himself as a potential focus of that story – and thus of her attentions
– renders himself as an object of discourse, telling her all about his lat-
190 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

est project. Furthermore, he goads her to pursue his story, noting that,
though the others there might similarly claim to have story potential,
they “would be lying,” and that he has “a strong urge to talk about what
I’m doing.” With their association thus initially defined as a meeting of
discursive impulses, of the writer and the writerly subject, their subse-
quent relationship seems to follow suit, to be marked by a series of ef-
forts at binding up one or the other within a realm of discourse, rang-
ing from the attempt to record Seth’s experimentation with a video
camera and, in the process, to “tell it what you’re thinking,” to Ronnie’s
desire to turn Seth’s story into an exclusive book project, and to Seth’s
compulsive talking after his transformation and his constant arguing
that Ronnie should undergo the teleportation process and thereby “be
destroyed and re-created” just like him, that is, be rewritten. On the
one hand, we might read this pattern as suggesting a necessary open-
ing up of Seth, a reaching for a new “structure” of relationships with
others in place of his self-imposed isolation, a situation in which, he
admits, “I’ve never given me a chance to be me.” Yet on the other, it
points to a danger in that opening up, in such a fundamental alteration,
even destruction of the self, as discourse runs amok with Seth’s com-
pulsive, rapid-fire talk, his verbal abuse of Ronnie, and his violent in-
sistence that, despite her fears, she continue to “chronicle the life and
times of Brundlefly” [Fig. 67].
Seen in the context of these themes of discourse, The Fly records
a shift from a passive relationship to the world and others to a dynam-
ic, open, and potentially life-transforming relationship – precisely the
sort of story that, Kawin would suggest, the science fiction film with
its emphasis on “openness” typically offers. However, we also see that
relationship go wrong, the transformation become distorted and de-
formed, and that very openness produce, much like Ronnie’s night-
mare of giving birth to a giant larva, something from which we recoil.
That dreamt thing, which we might put in this same context, as a dis-
course of the unconscious, points us back to the frightening nature of
that which has been created, of a self always seen as an object, a dis-
tant thing defined not by nature but by a formal “structuring” pattern
that rules human interaction here. Through its development of this dis-
cursive motif, then, the film allows us to consider the contingent na-
ture of human relationships, to contemplate how difficult and indeed
risky it is in this era to open up the self to others, to move beyond the
safe bounds with which we circumscribe our lives as well as our think-
ing,14 indeed, to fantasize.

Figure 67. Infused with a fly’s genes, Seth becomes compulsive and violent in
The Fly.

This emphasis on the contingent, even risky nature of our relation-

ships might seem far removed from the typical concerns of the science
fiction genre. It is certainly the stuff of many horror films, and partic-
ularly the focus of the contemporary “slasher” type, begun with Alfred
Hitchcock’s Psycho; yet it is also a logical extension of The Fly’s larger
concern with knowledge, and particularly with the sort of knowledge
that, as Seth asserts, could “change the world and human life as we
know it.” Before we set about such changes – changes that may very
well be inevitable – the narrative implies that we should first undertake
another sort of exploration into that terra incognita of the self and of
the self’s relations with others. As Leonard Heldreth in his overview
of Cronenberg’s work reminds, “Brundle’s fault is not that he goes too
far, but that he lacks understanding of himself.”15 What The Fly does,
then, very much in the fashion of such other films of this era as Blade
Runner (1982) and RoboCop (1987), is to establish a continuum of nec-
essary knowledge, suggesting that our efforts at changing the world
must send us back to a reconsideration of the self, that changes on one
level require changes on the other as well, that knowledge is not limit-
ed to one sort – and if we might push the point, to one conventionally
192 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

conceived genre. In its underscoring of that which lies outside the me-
chanical instrumentality of the technology on which we have come to
focus and rely so heavily, in its opening up of the field of inquiry, The
Fly simply works one more variation on that “stop trying to rationalize”
everything motif previously cited as central to the science fiction form.
It is in this light that we might see Harvey Roy Greenberg’s assertion
that all of Cronenberg’s work represents “a subversive inquiry into the
impact of late Twentieth century techno-culture upon psyche and so-
ma, identity and the social contract.”16
What I am already suggesting, then, is that the very meeting ground
that this film surveys for us – that between science and technology, on
the one hand, and the body with its fleshy imperative, on the other –
opens directly onto the larger generic problem it illustrates; for The Fly,
while a film about hybrids and hybrid possibilities, is also a film that
is a hybrid itself, and one that suggests the potential for such hybrid
forms as the science fiction–horror movie [Fig. 68]. In focusing on the
sort of hybrid creature that seems featured in all of Cronenberg’s work,
Robert Haas notes a warning that these creations seem to sound. As
he offers, “the integration between human and animal and machine,
between science and nature, between the mind and the body is, in fact,
disastrous in every Cronenberg film.”17 Yet that image lingers and does
not simply horrify. In fact, it serves as a very effective way of binding
up for our consideration a variety of contemporary problems: the
sense of a widening schism between mind and body, the seeming an-
tipathy between human and machine, even the often violent relation-
ship between male and female in today’s culture. We might see that hy-
brid image, then, in light of the larger formal issue here, that of genres;
for that terrible figure of failed “integration” stands in almost ironic
contrast to Cronenberg’s successful integration of formulas – it is a
“disastrous” image with very positive results for the filmmaker.
What we see demonstrated in The Fly – and, one might argue, in the
rest of Cronenberg’s work – is not so much a cinema of fantastic hesita-
tion or irresolution, then, as a cinema of effective tension: of narratives
that seem to be pulling against themselves, characters that seem to be,
often quite destructively, at odds with their own natures, cultures that
are pulling apart or violently turning themselves inside out. In fact, the
very cultural context of this film’s production speaks directly of such
a tension, and opens onto yet another sort of cross-breeding at work
here: David Cronenberg is a Canadian filmmaker, and his movies, at
least in recent years, have come to be seen as prominent emblems of

Figure 68. Crossing genre boundaries in The Fly: The scientific overreacher mu-
tates into the monster of horror.

a vital Canadian film industry, particularly since most Canadian films

never find exhibition beyond the major cities of Canada. For Cronen-
berg, after a career built on low-budget cult films and failed deals to di-
rect such major studio productions as Total Recall (1990), Top Gun
(1986), and Witness (1985), The Fly represented a breakthrough effort
into mainstream, American-style cinema, a chance to show he could do
194 ❖ F I L M A N A L Y S E S

an American fantasy film. Here he found backing with a big-time Holly-

wood studio, Twentieth Century–Fox, was paired with an American
producer, Stuart Cornfeld, and received a relatively lavish budget (by
Cronenberg standards) of $10 million with which to work. The result
was a film that played well with American audiences – indeed, that pre-
sents itself as an American film – yet also one that was shot in Canada
with Cronenberg’s “usual crew” of Canadians.18 In fact, we should note
a significant irony here: Whereas the original American version of The
Fly was set in Canada, Cronenberg’s updating has an American setting,
but with Toronto standing in for New York. Bart Testa suggests that this
double cultural pull bears special significance for understanding both
The Fly and Cronenberg’s work more generally. Much of the misunder-
standing of or even reaction against Cronenberg’s films, he theorizes,
comes from efforts to read them in very traditional generic contexts
and especially against the grain of his Canadian-ness. If, Testa argues,
Cronenberg’s “imagistic extremity violates the conventional decorum
of the science fiction film,” especially as it has been constructed within
the American cinema, it may be because “behind the Canadian Cronen-
berg is not just a cinema genre, but a discourse on technology spring-
ing from the Canadian ethos” toward the technological.19 The implica-
tion is that, even in trying to make an “American” science fiction film,
Cronenberg is still telling a fundamentally Canadian story and, in the
process of making the film, illustrating precisely the sort of tension on
which The Fly focuses.
However, the kind of question that most seems to intrigue Cronen-
berg is how one deals with such situations, with such tensions or af-
flictions, with both the insistent desires and the ultimate limits of “the
flesh,” the body – perhaps even the desires of the filmmaker to “make
it” in Hollywood. That he would be drawn to the borders of genre in
addressing them should seem quite natural, at least in part because
the postmodern context seems to find conventional narratives of every
sort, and certainly conventional generic formulas, rather inadequate for
taking the measure of such a world. The horror–science fiction film,
though, seems to fit the bill quite well, to offer a better means of gaug-
ing this highly technologized yet still fundamentally flesh-bound world,
precisely since it seems to allow the filmmaker to range across the en-
tire spectrum of fantastic narrative possibility, to interrogate the con-
ventional reality of our world and that of the self at the same time. At
least it seems to have allowed Cronenberg to better accomplish what,
for him, is the filmmaker’s key task: “A complete film-maker should be

able to appeal to all facets of human existence, the sensual as well as

the cerebral. If you do get this mixture together properly, you have a
perfect example of healing the Cartesian schism. You have something
that appeals to the intellect and to the viscera. If you mix them togeth-
er you get a whole movie.”20
What this discussion points to, though, is a continuing problem of
categorization, and one that our use of the categories of fantasy will
hardly eliminate. As Altman reminds us, “generic purity” is something
we can expect seldom if ever to encounter, particularly since what he
terms “fully formed” genres usually “work against the economic inter-
ests of the studio that spawned” them and its fundamental concern
with product differentiation.21 Instead, he suggests that, especially
when we focus on the American film industry, we might think of genres
in terms of periodic cycles that successfully combine two or more ge-
neric patterns – and are expressly marketed in terms of that combina-
tion – for Hollywood usually “labours to identify its pictures with mul-
tiple genres, in order to benefit from the increased interest that this
strategy inspires in diverse demographic groups.”22 While this ap-
proach suggests how difficult, perhaps even impossible, it is to pin
down and adequately account for a particular genre’s workings, it
might also underscore the value of the vantage taken here; for as our
discussion of The Fly has illustrated, the use of a broad category such
as fantasy might well allow us not only to embrace generic combina-
tions, but even to expect a certain element of narrative blending. More-
over, we might begin to account for the elements of that association,
and better understand how they appeal and draw our interests in rath-
er different directions. As Cronenberg in The Fly and elsewhere effec-
tively reminds us, a filmmaker often must ignore what audiences might
conventionally assume to be rigid boundaries if he or she wants to “get
a whole movie.” That injunction holds for audiences as well, who must
also be ready to see across those borders if they want to “get” the film.
A fantasy view of science fiction, and especially of the postmodern
American science fiction film, might assist us in that task.
Conclusion: A Note on Boundaries

hroughout this study of the science fiction film we have repeat-
edly taken up questions of borders and boundaries, in part be-
cause all questions of identity, including those relating to film
genres, immediately seem to call for an outline, a point of separation
between one thing and another. Boundaries have traditionally made for
easier discussion. At the same time, we should recognize that this is-
sue is especially pertinent to any discussion of science fiction because
its very subject matter – the reason–science–technology triad to which
I have often referred in this book – typically focuses our attention on
borders: the borders of our knowledge, those of our experience, those
that separate us from what we often, from the vantage of today’s thor-
oughly technologized society, might disparage as “nature.” Thus, in
his discussion of the Western scientific tradition, Robert Romanyshyn
describes our science and technology as tools that have created an-
other sort of border by reconfiguring the human as “a spectator self
ensconced behind its window” on the world.1 Certainly, moreover, the
films we commonly place within the science fiction classification re-
peatedly visualize this boundary situation. Most obviously, the robot
stands as a border figure between the human and the machine; the
rocket, spaceship, or flying saucer is a tool for traversing the bound-
aries of space; the scientist, such as The Fly’s (1986) Seth Brundle,
holds the key to other knowledge, perhaps even other states of being.
If the larger field of fantasy might be described as about the tracing of
limits, then, science fiction might well be termed, with some precision,
as a genre of borders, particularly as one that speculates on our ability
to cross conventional borders [Fig. 69].
Nevertheless, I want to emphasize this notion of borders or bound-
aries here not simply as a final thematic statement about science fic-
tion, but to point up several other margins at which this study has con-
stantly played and that bear some parting acknowledgment. One of
those follows from the very nature of the series in which this book is

❖ 197
198 ❖ S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M

an entry. As part of the Genres in American Cinema series, this volume

has focused on the varieties of science fiction film and particularly
American-produced entries in this form. As the fantasy perspective em-
ployed here and especially the chapter on The Fly suggest, this work
inevitably chafes slightly at its generic confines. We have repeatedly
noted, for example, how a certain blurring of boundaries characterizes
most studies of science fiction film; and indeed, our science fiction and
horror films do share many of the same conventions, do deploy many
comparable characters, do work through a number of similar themes.
In my own course on film genres, I have often also included the musical
as near kin to both of these forms, particularly as it suddenly reveals
some hidden knowledge, like “the hills are alive with the sound of mu-
sic,” or as its characters transcend normal human behavior, like Top
Hat’s (1935) Fred Astaire, who notes how he will often and inexplicably
“suddenly find myself dancing.” Such links should serve to remind us
not so much that genres in the Hollywood context often combine or
borrow from each other, but rather that the genres we so readily iden-
tify and think of as discrete forms may well draw on much larger struc-
tures whose markings are simply not so easy to discern.
Also following series guidelines, I have confined major commentary
to American entries in the genre, although from time to time some of
the form’s key foreign examples – notably such works as Aelita (USSR,
1924), Metropolis (Germany, 1926), and Things to Come (England, 1936)
– have figured in the discussion, and a film like The Fly with its Cana-
dian connections complicates such nationalist boundaries. As our his-
torical overview notes, the literary form of science fiction owes much
of its development to such major European writers as Jules Verne and
H. G. Wells, and some of the earliest French films follow in this tradi-
tion. However, the genre, particularly since the 1940s, has largely been
dominated by American productions, and with the current emphasis
on special-effects-laden, big-budget efforts, demanding the sort of re-
sources seldom available outside of the American film industry, it fig-
ures to remain so, thanks to the frequent box-office successes of such
films.2 The hope is that the commentary on these dominant produc-
tions will serve usefully for thinking about the science fiction work of
other national cinemas as well. As I have tried to suggest elsewhere,
despite its preeminent success within the Hollywood big-budget,
special-effects-laden context, the science fiction film finally knows no
cultural borders.3

Figure 69. A nightmarish image of genre boundary crossing in the cult classic
Robot Monster (1953).

Critical Consensus
The second issue of boundaries is perhaps more complex and follows
from a trend in recent film criticism that haunts this volume’s effort at
offering a systematic yet flexible approach to the study of the science
fiction film. This issue, as Nick Browne neatly summarizes, is bound up
in a current tendency to view film genres as “specific assemblages of
local coherencies – discrete, heterotropic instances of a complex cul-
tural politics.”4 That is, we have increasingly shifted our focus away
from trying to explain generic “coherencies,” from thinking of genre
as a kind of essential story composed of constant, if somewhat inter-
changeable elements, as well as various new additions. That movement
derives in part from critical concurrence, the sense that we have sim-
ply mined this vein far too long, but also in part because postmodern
criticism has become highly suspicious of any sort of essentializing
200 ❖ S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M

tendency. Instead, now we more often talk of a genre as if it were a con-

stantly shifting field of elements, responding to varying cultural pres-
sures or perhaps to underlying economic factors, and thus having little
in the way of a fundamental identity. This attitude tends to focus atten-
tion on the specific generic artifact at the expense of the larger generic
field, and finds value in that artifact precisely insofar as it provides us
with a trace or fingerprint of those “complex cultural politics” that, at
this moment, have helped to shape it. Such a view has well served the
evolving field of cultural studies and provided film studies an easy link
to its concerns. More particularly, it has brought into sharper focus
a little-explored function of our formulaic films, their status as what
Browne terms “repetitive, contested sites of stagings” for various ver-
sions of our life.5 The specific generic text becomes, in effect, a place
where we can find the traces of those many cultural influences that to-
gether construct our identities and indeed our world.
Still, that approach to genre has its inherent limitations and estab-
lishes its own sort of borders with which this study has tried to work
some compromise; for insofar as we rack focus specifically on a “cul-
tural politics,” we always run the risk of transforming the elements of
genre to little more than a blurry background and seeing them not as
part of that complex but simply as a convenient context or as unex-
plained “assemblages.” Thus the common iconographic elements of
science fiction – robots, spaceships, futuristic cities, time and matter
transporters – could come to seem just a different sort of livery in
which we dress up the most recent cultural issues, and as having little
significant or consistent evocative potential in themselves, save inso-
far as that audiences, for the moment, find them exciting or curious (as
if the “cinema of attractions” had never developed beyond its primi-
tive state). In following up, perhaps even overemphasizing, the notion
that generic narratives are constantly evolving structures, marvelous
and developing sets of inventions, we have sidestepped any sort of dis-
cussion that suggests there is a character or concern that is fundamen-
tal to one genre and not necessarily to another. One result of this aver-
sion to the essential is that we fail to recognize anything as particularly
special or meaningful about a genre’s patterns, nothing that finally mer-
its distinguishing one form from another – or merits the writing of a
book on, say, science fiction. Nonetheless, certain genres at particular
points in our history have seemed especially adept at or useful for
addressing, codifying, and imaginatively working out our cultural anx-
ieties. As a most obvious example, we might consider the western,

which has certainly treated the conflict between civilization and wilder-
ness, between acculturating and asocial forces, far more effectively
than the musical or melodrama has ever managed to do. Alternatively,
we might just as evidently think of the science fiction film, which has
arguably provided the most evocative context for working out our cul-
ture’s conflicted attitudes toward the technological and those changes
it heralds; yet some fear that admitting to any level of generic constan-
cy might gainsay the demonstrably dynamic patterns observed in our
formulaic films, or obscure their political thrust and coercion.

Dynamics of Genre
In the face of these difficulties, which might well seem of little conse-
quence to most students of genre films, I have tried to stake out a use-
ful ground for genre thinking, one that finally straddles some borders,
for example, by admitting the dynamic while still holding onto some-
thing essential, and by describing narrative and thematic patterns that
open onto the ideological. As we have seen, the American science fic-
tion film displays a certain level of coherence, even as it also seems
pulled at various times and by a variety of cultural forces in very differ-
ent directions. That coherence at least superficially derives from what
we have traditionally viewed as the “marks” of genre – the semantic
and syntactic conventions that typify all formulaic discourse. What I
have also suggested here is that other marks of coherence pertain as
well. These include the structural marks shared by all of those narra-
tives that do the work of fantasy, a form that, as Rosemary Jackson
offers, “traces a space within a society’s cognitive frame. It introduces
multiple, contradictory ‘truths’; it becomes polysemic.”6 As we have
seen, fantasy does so by deploying its uncanny, marvelous, and fantas-
tic patterns; that is, it actuates certain conventional ways of interrogat-
ing our world, often by describing alternative realities. Those patterns
that force us to look inward, compel us to consider wholly exterior in-
fluences on our world, or simply confront us with mystery, with what
might or might not be, can provide a convenient overlay for the science
fiction genre, allowing us to group its narratives, more readily to gauge
its changes and the dynamic interplay between those groupings, and
to see more clearly specific themes that attach to this genre more com-
monly than to another.
Nevertheless, like so many other approaches – or theories, if you
will – this way of looking at our science fiction films remains just an
202 ❖ S C I E N C E F I C T I O N F I L M

Figure 70. Within that land without borders that is science fiction narrative:
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

overlay, one tool that might be used along with a variety of others to
help us ask questions about the genre. Insofar as it helps students to
organize this field for their thinking, insofar as it draws them closer to
the films and their implications for the American cultural landscape,
insofar as it aids them in framing some of those questions about the
genre, it should prove useful. If we see it, though, as simply an organi-
zational scheme, a way of accounting for everything from Alphaville
(1965) to Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), it will prove of only min-
imal benefit. In effect, my aim too has been to offer another sort of bor-
der or outline for thinking about this genre, but one I encourage read-
ers and viewers to feel free to cross, to transgress as their studies
The real appeal of this study, though, is the same for the writer as
it is for the science fiction film audience. It comes not from trying to
frame an approach to genre, but from exploring what for many seems
to be the most important contemporary film genre. As Scott Bukatman
offers, “there is simply no overstating the importance of science fiction

to the present cultural moment, a moment that sees itself as science

fiction.”7 For the science fiction film today typically seems to provide
us not so much with the sort of “escape” the critics of the movies once
ascribed to all genre productions, but rather with a mirror of and ac-
cess to our increasingly complex cultural landscape. Brooks Landon
describes this effect most tellingly when he suggests that the province
of contemporary science fiction is not so much “what the future might
hold, but the inevitable hold of the present over the future – what the
future could not fail to be.”8 What he suggests, as viewers of such cin-
ematic masterworks as Blade Runner (1982), RoboCop (1987), and Ter-
minator 2: Judgment Day (1991) well know, is that we are already and
always within that science fiction context, that land without borders,
that world which bears all the trappings of a genre [Fig. 70]. An attempt
to understand that genre better, or even to frame specific questions
about its workings, can only help us to live in that world and perhaps
to push a bit more effectively at its own boundaries.


1. Introduction: The World of the Science Fiction Film

1. Cited in Edward James’s Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 50. Campbell is, of course, one of the
most important figures in the shaping of modern science fiction litera-
2. David Hartwell, Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction
(New York: McGraw–Hill, 1984), pp. 4, 10, 20.
3. James, Science Fiction, pp. 1, 2.
4. Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History
of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 10, 4.
5. Ibid., p. 12.
6. As examples of that tendency to conflate horror and science fiction, we
might note a number of early yet still valuable histories, most notably Car-
los Clarens’s seminal study, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (New
York: Capricorn, 1967) and John Baxter’s Science Fiction in the Cinema
(New York: Paperback Library, 1970).
7. Most commentaries on the nature of film genres describe and give a name
to this problem. Edward Buscombe, for example, terms it the “philosoph-
ical problem of universals” in his “The Idea of Genre in the American Cin-
ema,” in Barry Keith Grant, ed., Film Genre Reader II (Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1995), pp. 11–25, at p. 13.
8. For an example of this approach I might suggest my own treatment of per-
haps the most amorphous American film genre, the film noir, in Voices in
the Dark: The Narrative Strategies of Film Noir (Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 1989). Here I initially accept, for purposes of establishing a field of
investigation, all those films that prior commentators have included in the
noir category. From that inclusive starting point I was better able to iden-
tify and then describe the variety of narrative strategies involved in that
9. Bruce F. Kawin, “Children of the Light,” in Grant, ed., Film Genre Reader II,
pp. 308–29, at pp. 319, 321.
10. Ibid., p. 313.
11. Ibid., p. 319.
12. John G. Cawelti, “The Question of Popular Genres,” Journal of Popular
Film and Television 13, no. 2 (1985): 55–61, at p. 56.

❖ 205
206 ❖ N O T E S T O P P . 1 1 – 2 9

13. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre,

trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 14.
14. Ibid., pp. 35, 56.
15. Ibid., p. 8.
16. James, Science Fiction, p.13.
17. We might note that, as he set about describing the field of the horror film,
Bruce Kawin also delineated three dominant narrative types. These types
– tales of the supernatural, tales of the monstrous, and tales of psychosis
– might arguably be described in terms of Todorov’s fantastic categories
as well, thereby further suggesting the natural links between these two
forms. See Kawin, “Children of the Light,” p. 326.
18. Todorov, Fantastic, p. 56.
19. Ibid., p. 120.
20. Ibid., p. 139.
21. His approach can be seen in Buscombe, “Idea of Genre.”
22. Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” Grant, ed.,
Film Genre Reader II, pp. 26–40, at p. 30.
23. Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster,” Against Interpretation and Oth-
er Essays (New York: Dell, 1966), pp. 212–28, at p. 223. Specifically, Sontag
suggests that all of the genre’s technological trappings essentially stand
in for “the universal rule of reason.”
24. Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methu-
en, 1981), p. 53.
25. Rosemary Jackson makes a similar point: She argues that all fantastic texts
find their true appeal not so much in the sort of “escapism or . . . simple
pleasure principle” (ibid., p. 2) that many critics emphasize and also use
to dismiss the form from serious consideration, but rather in the way they
“trace the unsaid and the unseen of culture” (p. 4), thereby exposing and
subverting its limiting forces.
26. Ibid., p. 4.
27. Garrett Stewart, “The ‘Videology’ of Science Fiction,” in George E. Slusser
and Eric S. Rabkin, eds., Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and Science
Fiction in Film (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), pp.
159–207, at p. 159.
28. Albert J. La Valley, “Traditions of Trickery: The Role of Special Effects in
the Science Fiction Film,” in Slusser and Rabkin, eds., Shadows of the Mag-
ic Lamp, pp. 141–58, at p. 141.
29. Ibid., p. 149.
30. Todorov, Fantastic, p. 115.
31. La Valley, “Traditions of Trickery,” pp. 157–8. This tendency to see the sci-
ence fiction film as too often detached from real-world consequences
shows up in Susan Sontag’s oft-cited discussion of the genre, “The Imag-
ination of Disaster,” wherein she argues that the genre is characterized
by “an inadequate response” to the problems of the day (p. 227). Judith
Hess Wright launches a far more fundamental assault on the genre, as she
charges that genre films in general, and science fiction films particularly,
inherently serve the status quo and are simply incapable, by their very
conservative and nostalgic nature, of advancing a truly challenging or sub-
NOTES T O P P. 2 9 – 4 5 ❖ 207

versive vision. See her “Genre Films and the Status Quo,” in Grant, ed.,
Film Genre Reader II, pp. 41–9.
32. Robert D. Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream (London: Rout-
ledge, 1989), p. 117.
33. Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, trans. Bernard and Caro-
line Schutze (New York: Semiotext(e), 1987), p. 15.
34. Jackson, Fantasy, p. 13.
35. See Will Wright’s Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).

2. Science Fiction Film: The Critical Context

1. William Johnson, “Journey into Science Fiction,” in Johnson, ed., Focus on
the Science Fiction Film (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice–Hall, 1972), pp.
1–12, at p. 1.
2. Tim Bywater and Thomas Sobchack, Introduction to Film Criticism: Ma-
jor Critical Approaches to Narrative Film (New York: Longman, 1989),
p. 27.
3. John Baxter, Science Fiction in the Cinema (New York: Paperback Library,
1970), pp. 7, 11.
4. Ibid., p. 207.
5. Denis Gifford, Science Fiction Film (London: Studio Vista, 1971), p. 151.
6. Harry Geduld, “Return to Méliès: Reflections on the Science Fiction Film,”
in Johnson, ed., Focus on the Science Fiction Film, pp. 142–7, at p. 142.
7. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” Against Interpretation and Other Es-
says (New York: Dell, 1966), pp. 13–23, at pp. 17, 19.
8. Ibid., p. 21.
9. Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster,” Against Interpretation and
Other Essays, pp. 212–28, at p. 216.
10. Ibid., pp. 215, 218.
11. Ibid., p. 225.
12. Ibid., pp. 227, 228.
13. Ibid., p. 227, and “Against Interpretation,” p. 23.
14. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 14.
15. Vivian Sobchack, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, 2d
ed. (New York: Ungar, 1987), p. 302.
16. Michael Stern, “Making Culture into Nature,” in Annette Kuhn, ed., Alien
Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema (London:
Verso, 1990), pp. 66–72, at p. 72.
17. Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, “Technophobia,” in Kuhn, ed., Alien
Zone, pp. 58–65, at p. 62.
18. Ibid., p. 65.
19. Ibid., p. 60.
20. Judith Hess Wright, “Genre Films and the Status Quo,” in Barry Keith Grant,
ed., Film Genre Reader II (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), pp. 41–9.
at pp. 41, 47–8.
21. Bywater and Sobchack, Introduction to Film Criticism, p. 185.
208 ❖ N O T E S T O P P . 4 5 – 5 4

22. Margaret Tarratt, “Monsters from the Id,” in Grant, ed., Film Genre Read-
er II, pp. 330–49, at p. 331.
23. Ibid., p. 338.
24. Ibid.
25. For a detailed account of the impact of Lacanian psychology on narrative
studies, see the collection by Robert Con Davis, ed., Lacan and Narration:
The Psychoanalytic Difference in Narrative Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hop-
kins University Press, 1983), especially the editor’s introduction.
26. Bywater and Sobchack, Introduction to Film Criticism, p. 187.
27. Constance Penley, “Time Travel, Primal Scene and the Critical Dystopia,”
in Kuhn, ed., Alien Zone, pp. 116–27, at p. 120.
28. Ibid., p. 125.
29. Vivian Sobchack, “The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction
Film,” in Kuhn, ed., Alien Zone, pp. 103–15, at p. 104.
30. Ibid., p. 114.
31. Patrick Lucanio, Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Inva-
sion Films (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 6, 83, 54.
32. Ibid., p. 131.
33. Ibid., p. 127.
34. See especially the interview with Haraway conducted by Constance Pen-
ley and Andrew Ross, “Cyborgs at Large: Interview with Donna Haraway,”
in Penley and Ross, eds., Technoculture (Minneapolis: University of Minne-
sota Press, 1991), pp. 1–20, at p. 3.
35. Donna Haraway, “The Actors Are Cyborg, Nature Is Coyote, and the Geog-
raphy Is Elsewhere: Postscript to ‘Cyborgs at Large,’” Technoculture, pp.
21–6, at p. 21.
36. Mary Ann Doane, “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and the Fem-
inine,” in Mary Jacobus, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Sally Shuttleworth, eds.,
Body/Politics: Women and the Discourse of Science (London: Routledge,
1990), pp. 163–76, at p. 163.
37. Ibid., p. 174.
38. Ibid., p. 170.
39. Barbara Creed, “Alien and the Monstrous-Feminine,” in Kuhn, ed., Alien
Zone, pp. 128–41, at p. 129.
40. Ibid., p. 140.
41. Ibid., p. 129.
42. Claudia Springer, Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial
Age (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), p. 9.
43. Ibid., p. 8.
44. Ibid., p. 10.
45. Ibid., pp. 10, 100.
46. For background on the debate about the “objectivity” of science studies,
see the collection Science Wars (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press,
1996), especially the introduction by its editor, Andrew Ross, pp. 1–15.
47. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,
trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1984), p. xxiv.
48. The reader might begin to gauge the variety of postmodern readings of the
NOTES T O P P. 5 6 – 6 9 ❖ 209

genre in Jameson’s “Progress vs. Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?”
in Science-Fiction Studies 9, no. 2 (1982): 147–58; Landon’s “Bet On It: Cy-
ber/video/punk/performance,” in Larry McCaffery, ed., Storming the Real-
ity Studio (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991), pp. 239–44; Telotte’s
Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film (Urbana: Univer-
sity of Illinois Press, 1995); and Annette Kuhn’s collection Alien Zone.
49. Scott Bukatman, “Who Programs You? The Science Fiction of the Specta-
cle,” in Kuhn, ed., Alien Zone, pp. 196–213, at p. 204.
50. Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Sci-
ence Fiction (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 9.
51. Ibid., pp. 217, 220.
52. Ibid., p. 329.
53. Giuliana Bruno, “Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner,” in Kuhn,
ed., Alien Zone, pp. 183–95, at p. 184.
54. Ibid., p. 185.
55. Ibid., p. 193.
56. Per Schelde, Androids, Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters: Sci-
ence and Soul in Science Fiction Film (New York: New York University Press,
1993), p. 3.
57. Ibid., pp. 8–9.
58. Ibid., p. 242.
59. Ibid., p. 82.


3. A Trajectory of the American Science Fiction Film

1. David Hartwell, Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction (New
York: McGraw–Hill, 1984), p. 42.
2. H. Bruce Franklin, Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth
Century, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. vii.
3. Ibid., p. viii. In Future Perfect Franklin offers a detailed discussion of both
major and minor contributors to the American science fiction tradition,
as well as samples from their works.
4. Edward James, Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1994), p. 13.
5. Harold Beaver, “Introduction,” in Beaver, ed., The Science Fiction of Edgar
Allan Poe (New York: Penguin, 1976), pp. vii–xxi, at p. xiii.
6. James, Science Fiction, p. 28.
7. Franklin, Future Perfect, p. 269. For background on the popularity of Amer-
ican utopian fiction, also see James D. Hart, The Popular Book: A History
of America’s Literary Taste (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
8. James, Science Fiction, p. 43.
9. Franklin, Future Perfect, pp. viii–ix.
10. Howard P. Segal, “The Technological Utopians,” in Joseph J. Corn, ed.,
Imagining Tomorrow: History, Technology, and the American Future (Cam-
bridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986), pp. 119–36, at p. 122. I am indebted to this
essay for much of the background on turn-of-the-century American utopi-
210 ❖ N O T E S T O P P . 6 9 – 7 8

an thought. For a discussion of different types of utopian narrative, con-

sult Peter Ruppert’s Reader in a Strange Land: The Activity of Reading Lit-
erary Utopias (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).
11. For a detailed discussion of the naming of the science fiction genre, see
James, Science Fiction, pp. 7–11, as well as Hartwell, Age of Wonders, pp.
118–19. Although the term “science-fiction” was first used in England in
1851, this label did not catch on, largely, we might suppose, because there
was no significant body of work for it to designate. We might also note that
the designation “pseudo-scientific stories” continued to be used by a ma-
jor reference work like the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature until 1961.
12. Quoted in Paul A. Carter’s The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Maga-
zine Science Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 9.
13. Ibid., p. 65.
14. James, Science Fiction, p. 57.
15. Ibid., p. 58.
16. Although I emphasize some major differences between the pulps and
the early science fiction comics, I should acknowledge one area of near-
kinship. A pulp fanzine, Science Fiction, first printed a two-page strip of Su-
perman, a figure that was picked up in 1938 by the new Action Comics. An
even closer line of kinship shows up in the case of Marvel Mystery Comics,
which published a number of the more popular figures, such as Captain
America, the Human Torch, and the Submariner; and this comic was itself
an offshoot of a pulp science fiction magazine, Marvel Science Stories.
17. For a brief background on these and other science fiction illustrators, see
the essay “Science Fiction Art” in Brian Ash’s The Visual Encyclopedia of
Science Fiction (New York: Harmony Books, 1977), pp. 286–92.
18. James, Science Fiction, p. 54.
19. Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Sci-
ence Fiction (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 6.
20. Veronica Hollinger, “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Post-
modernism,” in Larry McCaffery, ed., Storming the Reality Studio (Durham,
N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991), pp. 203–18, at p. 204.
21. William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), p. 5.
22. Larry McCaffery, “Introduction: The Desert of the Real,” in McCaffery, ed.,
Storming the Reality Studio, pp. 1–16, at pp. 1, 14.
23. Richard Kadrey and Larry McCaffery, “Cyberpunk 101,” Storming the Re-
ality Studio, pp. 17–29, at p. 17.
24. Brian McHale, “POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM,” Storming the Reality Studio,
pp. 308–23, at p. 320.
25. Garrett Stewart, “The ‘Videology’ of Science Fiction,” in George E. Slusser
and Eric S. Rabkin, eds., Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and Science
Fiction in Film (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), pp.
159–207, at p. 159.
26. Ibid., p. 161.
27. Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1926; rpt., New York: Touchstone, 1986), pp.
28. Ibid., p. 159.
29. For a discussion of the nature and appeal of early film, consult Gunning’s
NOTES T O P P. 8 0 – 9 9 ❖ 211

influential essay “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and
the Avant Garde,” Wide Angle 8, nos. 3/4 (1986): 63–70. As he has explained,
early cinema should be considered in terms of its fascination with novelty
and its repeated emphasis on the act of display, elements for which a bur-
geoning science fiction cinema was quite well suited.
30. Albert J. La Valley, “Traditions of Trickery: The Role of Special Effects in
the Science Fiction Film,” in Slusser and Rabkin, eds., Shadows of the Mag-
ic Lamp, pp. 141–58, at p. 146.
31. Raymond Durgnat, The Crazy Mirror (New York: Dutton, 1970), p. 71.
32. Richard Guy Wilson, Dianne H. Pilgrim, and Dickran Tashjian, The Machine
Age in America: 1918–1941 (New York: Abrams, 1986), p. 23.
33. One of my own studies examines early science fiction film in the context
of the Machine Age and especially in light of the specific set of cultural val-
ues that accompanied the era’s fascination with machine technology. J. P.
Telotte, A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age
(Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, and Hanover, N.H.: Univer-
sity Press of New England, 1999).
34. Joseph J. Corn, “Introduction,” in Corn, ed., Imagining Tomorrow: History,
Technology, and the American Future (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986),
pp. 1–9, at p. 8.
35. Cecelia Tichi, Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist
America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 240.
36. Ibid., p. 42.
37. We should note how pervasive this emphasis on using technology to cheat
death was in this period. In addition to the obvious example of Franken-
stein (1931) and its numerous sequels, the notion of a rejuvenating pow-
er shows up in Just Imagine, Six Hours to Live, The Phantom Empire (1935),
and The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), among other films. This motif’s
recurrence in a fledging science fiction cinema certainly suggests the sort
of great, if naïve hopes that this era attached to the developments of sci-
ence and technology.
38. See Alan G. Barbour’s Cliffhanger (Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1977) for
an overview of the form.
39. John Baxter, Science Fiction in the Cinema (New York: Paperback Library,
1970), p. 75.
40. Tichi, Shifting Gears, p. 16.
41. In my historical treatment of the robot image in film, I offer a more detailed
discussion of serial storytelling, particularly focusing on its rather me-
chanical approach to narrative. See J. P. Telotte, Replications: A Robotic His-
tory of the Science Fiction Film (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995),
pp. 91–110.
42. Baxter, Science Fiction in the Cinema, p. 101.
43. James, Science Fiction, p. 13.
44. Peter Biskind, Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Wor-
rying and Love the Fifties (New York: Pantheon, 1983), pp. 159, 158.
45. For a useful listing and categorization of films of the Atomic Age, see the
annotated filmography “The Atomic Age: Facts and Films from 1945–1965”
by Bryan Fruth et al. in Journal of Popular Film and Television 23, no. 4
(1996): 154–60.
212 ❖ N O T E S T O P P . 1 0 1 – 2 3

46. Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methu-

en, 1981), p. 13.
47. For much of my discussion of 2001 I am indebted to what remains one of
the best commentaries on the film, Mary McDermott and W. R. Robinson’s
“2001 and the Literary Sensibility,” in The Georgia Review 26 (1972): 21–37.
Clearly impelled by a sense of the film’s importance to both the science
fiction genre and to film narrative, the authors suggest that it might be “the
most affirmative work of art in Western visual culture” (23), and their anal-
ysis supports that assertion by placing it in another sort of evolutionary
context, that of Western culture’s increasing movement from verbal to vi-
sual narrative.
48. Andrew Gordon, “Close Encounters: The Gospel According to Steven Spiel-
berg,” Literature/Film Quarterly 8, no. 3 (1980): 156–64, at p. 156.
49. Robert D. Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream (London: Rout-
ledge, 1989), p. 114.
50. For a detailed discussion of these three genres, as well as of their similar
focus on postmodern problems of “gender identity,” see Annalee Newitz,
“Magical Girls and Atomic Bomb Sperm: Japanese Animation in America,”
Film Quarterly 49, no. 1 (1995): 2–15.
51. Ibid., p. 4.
52. Ibid., p. 9.
53. Ibid., p. 12.
54. Mike Lyons traces out the development of CGI effects, with a particular
emphasis on their applications to screen fantasy, in his “Cyber-Cinema,”
Cinefantastique 28, no. 8 (1997): 40–3, 62.
55. Ibid., p. 41.
56. Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyber-
space (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997), p. 15.
57. Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream, p. 67.


4. The Science Fiction Film as Fantastic Text

1. Paul Ricoeur, “Ideology and Utopia as Cultural Imagination,” in Donald M.
Borchert and David Stewart, eds., Being Human in a Technological Age
(Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979), pp. 107–25, at pp. 107, 122.
2. In treating the utopian and dystopian narratives simply as variations on a
similar impulse, I follow a tradition in such commentary best summed up
by Peter Ruppert, who notes that “just as every utopia contains within it,
explicitly or implicitly, an anti-utopia that it tries to transform, so every
anti-utopia implies a utopian alternative, the construction of which is left
up to the reader.” See Ruppert, Reader in a Strange Land: The Activity of
Reading Literary Utopias (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986), p. 116.
3. Ricoeur, “Ideology and Utopia,” p. 121.
4. Ibid., p. 107.
5. Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methu-
en, 1981), p. 26.
NOTES T O P P. 1 2 4 – 3 9 ❖ 213

6. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre,

trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 31.
7. Ibid., p. 32.
8. Jackson, Fantasy, p. 18.
9. Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias (New York: Viking, 1962), p. 37.
10. Ibid., p. 2.
11. For a discussion of these cultural tensions, and particularly of the conflict
between a technocratic and an antitechnology spirit in England during this
period, see J. P. Telotte, A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the
Machine Age (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, and Hanover,
N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999), pp. 139–61.
12. Garrett Stewart, “The ‘Videology’ of Science Fiction,” in George E. Slusser
and Eric S. Rabkin, eds., Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and Science
Fiction in Film (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), pp.
159–207, at p. 159.
13. Sally Kline, ed., George Lucas: Interviews (Jackson: University of Missis-
sippi Press, 1999), p. 10.
14. Much of the background on the filming of THX 1138 is taken from ibid.,
pp. 8–10.
15. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Ca-
miller (London: Verso, 1989), p. 79.
16. Paul Virilio, “The Last Vehicle,” in Dietmar Kamper and Christoph Wulf,
eds., Looking Back on the End of the World (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989),
pp. 106–19, at p. 115.
17. Stewart, “‘Videology’ of Science Fiction,” p. 161.
18. Michael Pye and Lynda Myles, The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation
Took Over Hollywood (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1979), p. 117.
19. That sense of the labyrinthine seems central to the film’s original concep-
tion, as is suggested by the source for the feature movie, George Lucas’s
award-winning short student film entitled Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138:
4EB (Pye and Myles, Movie Brats, p. 115).
20. Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine, trans. Julie Rose (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1994), p. 60.
21. Louise Wilson, “Cyberwar, God and Television: Interview with Paul Virilio,”
CTheory (
22. Pye and Myles, Movie Brats, p. 118.
23. As Rosemary Jackson explains, this sort of “inscription of fantasy on the
level of narrative structure” is not only one of the form’s defining features,
but it also functions “as a displacement of fantasy’s central thematic is-
sue: an uncertainty as to the nature of the ‘real’” (Jackson, Fantasy, p. 48).
24. Albert J. La Valley, “Traditions of Trickery: The Role of Special Effects in
the Science Fiction Film,” in Slusser and Rabkin, eds., Shadows of the Magic
Lamp, pp. 141–58, at p. 156.
25. Mark Poster, ed., Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (Stanford, Calif.: Stan-
ford University Press, 1988), p. 149.
26. Ibid., p. 174.
27. Ruppert, Reader in a Strange Land, p. 119.
28. Virilio, War and Cinema, p. 66.
214 ❖ N O T E S T O P P . 1 3 9 – 5 5

29. “No place,” we should recall, is the literal translation of the word “utopia.”
30. In this notion we might see a key distinction between the thinking of Bau-
drillard and that of Virilio; for while the former consistently talks of simu-
lation, the latter emphasizes the distinct difference that substitution repre-
sents. As Virilio offers, “we are entering a world where there won’t be one
but two realities . . . the actual, and the virtual. Thus there is no simulation,
but substitution. Reality has become symmetrical. The splitting of reality
in two parts is a considerable event which goes far beyond simulation,”
and one in which he sees potentially dangerous consequences (see Wil-
son, “Cyberwar, God and Television”).
31. Jackson, Fantasy, p. 25.

5. The Science Fiction Film as Marvelous Text

1. Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methu-
en, 1981), p. 19.
2. Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster,” Against Interpretation and
Other Essays (New York: Dell, 1966), pp. 212–28. Sontag’s article has proven
one of the most influential on science fiction film criticism, particularly for
its symptomatic reading of the genre, as indicative of a (dominantly Amer-
ican) mindset that is highly skeptical, even afraid of the products of our
science and technology. See Chapter 2 for a summary of this essay.
3. Quoted in Michael Pye and Lynda Myles, The Movie Brats: How the Film
Generation Took Over Hollywood (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1979), p. 241.
4. Close Encounters was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Art Di-
rection, Cinematography, Director, Editing, Screenplay, Sound, Supporting
Actress, and Visual Effects; it won in the area of Cinematography. Among
many other awards, it was named Best Picture of the year by the New York
Film Critics Circle.
5. Jackson, Fantasy, p. 24.
6. Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction, rev.
ed. (Chicago: Advent, 1967), p. 4.
7. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre,
trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 56.
8. Ibid., p. 83.
9. Stanley Kauffmann, “Epiphany,” The New Republic, 10 Dec. 1977, pp. 20–1,
at p. 20.
10. Andrew Gordon, “Close Encounters: The Gospel According to Steven Spiel-
berg,” Literature/Film Quarterly 8, no. 3 (1980): 156–64, at pp. 156–7.
11. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978), pp. 4, 3.
12. Gordon, “Close Encounters: Gospel.” p. 160.
13. Ibid.
14. Mitch Tuchman, “Close Encounter with Steven Spielberg,” Film Comment
14, no. 1 (1978): 49–55, at p. 49.
15. Gordon, “Close Encounters: Gospel.” p. 163.
16. Ibid., p. 161.
17. A novelist with a pointedly religious bent, Percy chose a science fiction
format for a number of his later books and, in the process, pointed toward
NOTES T O P P. 1 5 6 – 7 7 ❖ 215

the sort of effective marriage of science fiction and the marvelous that
Spielberg works out in Close Encounters. The work to which I refer here is
his mix of fiction and essay, Lost in the Cosmos; or, The Last Self-Help Book
(New York: Farrar, Straus, 1983).
18. Pye and Myles, Movie Brats, pp. 245–6.
19. Quoted in Joseph McBride’s Steven Spielberg: A Biography (New York: Da
Capo Press, 1999), p. 291.
20. Todorov, Fantastic, p. 103.
21. Ibid., p. 139.
22. Ibid., p. 127.

6. The Science Fiction Film as Uncanny Text

1. Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methu-
en, 1981), p. 67.
2. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre,
trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 120.
3. Ibid.
4. Chris Shea and Wade Jennings, “Paul Verhoeven: An Interview,” Post Script
12, no. 3 (1993): 3–24, at p. 9.
5. Ibid., p. 11
6. Between the studio and the MPAA’s ratings board, RoboCop was cut, ac-
cording to Verhoeven, eight times in efforts to obtain a more favorable rat-
ing. See his discussion of this process in ibid., p. 14.
7. Ibid.
8. Jackson, Fantasy, p. 25.
9. Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History
of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 10.
10. Asimov created his laws of robotics in consultation with the famous sci-
ence fiction writer and editor Joseph W. Campbell Jr. as he set about writ-
ing a series of robot stories in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They are
here taken from his collection of robotics stories, I, Robot (Greenwich,
Conn.: Fawcett Crest, 1950), p. 40.
11. Shea and Jennings, “Paul Verhoeven: An Interview,” pp. 18–19. We might
recall that Verhoeven’s academic training was in mathematics and physics.
That scientific background points up both the authority with which he
speaks about the reason–science–technology triad and the complexity of
his satiric treatment of that world view.
12. Jackson, Fantasy, p. 90.
13. Todorov, Fantastic, p. 115.
14. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Ca-
miller (London: Verso, 1989), p. 79.
15. Shea and Jennings, “Paul Verhoeven: An Interview,” p. 19.
16. Virilio, War and Cinema, p. 79.
17. Brian Cronenworth, “Man of Iron,” American Film 13, no. 1 (1987): 33–5, at
p. 35.
18. Shea and Jennings, “Paul Verhoeven: An Interview,” p. 19.
216 ❖ N O T E S T O P P . 1 7 8 – 9 1

19. Barry K. Grant, “Invaders from Mars and the Science Fiction Film in the
Age of Reagan,” CineAction! no. 8 (1987): 77–83, at p. 83.
20. Ibid.

7. Crossing Genre Boundaries / Bound by Fantasy

1. Bruce F. Kawin, “Children of the Light,” in Barry Keith Grant, ed., Film
Genre Reader II (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), pp. 308–29, at
p. 314.
2. Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1999), p. 59. Altman’s
theory about genres developing from studio-bred cycles is pointedly tied
to the economic character of the Hollywood studio system; as he offers,
“Hollywood studios have little interest in anything that must be shared
with their competitors,” such as full-blown genres (59). He thus argues
that, particularly in their early stages, genres are constantly characterized
by the sort of boundary blurrings we note here.
3. Kawin, “Children of the Light,” p. 322.
4. Caroline Picart, “Re-Birthing the Monstrous: James Whale’s (Mis)Reading
of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 15,
no. 4 (1998): 383–96, at p. 383.
5. Frank McConnell, “Born in Fire: The Ontology of the Monster,” in George
E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, eds., Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and
Science Fiction in Film (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,
1985), pp. 231–8, at p. 237.
6. Kawin suggests that the science fiction film’s appeal lies in its advocacy
of “the creative use of intelligent curiosity,” whereas the horror film warns
us about the dangers of that same curiosity. See “Children of the Light,”
p. 321.
7. Chris Rodley, ed., Cronenberg on Cronenberg (London: Faber & Faber,
1992), p. 57.
8. Bart Testa, “Technology’s Body: Cronenberg, Genre, and the Canadian
Ethos,” Post Script 15, no. 1 (1995): 39–56.
9. Rodley, ed., Cronenberg on Cronenberg, p. 59.
10. Ibid., p. 131.
11. Ibid., p. 5.
12. Barbara Creed, “Alien and the Monstrous-Feminine,” in Annette Kuhn, ed.,
Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema (Lon-
don: Verso, 1990), pp. 128–41, at p. 137.
13. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre,
trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 139.
14. We might consider in this context the frequent description of the film as a
thinly disguised allegory about the issue of AIDS. Indeed, Cronenberg often
refers to Seth’s problem as a kind of “disease,” and notes that what really
“fascinated” him about the story was the question of “how does this man
deal with his disease: rationalize it, articulate it?” See Rodley, ed., Cronen-
berg on Cronenberg, p. 124.
15. Leonard Heldreth, “Festering in Thebes: Elements of Tragedy and Myth
in Cronenberg’s Films,” Post Script 15, no. 2 (1996): 46–61, at p. 59.
NOTES T O P P. 1 9 2 – 2 0 3 ❖ 217

16. Harvey Roy Greenberg, “Machine Dreams,” Film and Philosophy, no. 4
(1997): 111–15, at p. 111.
17. Robert Haas, “Introduction: The Cronenberg Project: Literature, Science,
Psychology, and the Monster in Cinema,” Post Script 15, no. 2 (1996): 3–10,
at p. 5.
18. Rodley, ed., Cronenberg on Cronenberg, p. 123. Cronenberg here describes
The Fly as his “biggest financial success; it made more money than all the
other films combined” (p. 134). Information on the production background
of The Fly is drawn from this volume, pp. 122–34.
19. Testa, “Technology’s Body,” p. 51.
20. Rodley, ed., Cronenberg on Cronenberg, p. 90.
21. Altman, Film/Genre, p. 59.
22. Ibid., p. 57.

8. Conclusion: A Note on Boundaries

1. Robert D. Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream (London: Rout-
ledge, 1989), p. 114.
2. Janet Wasko, in her study Hollywood in the Information Age (Austin: Uni-
versity of Texas Press, 1995), describes how “the number of science fic-
tion or space epics have increased with the evolution of sophisticated ef-
fects techniques,” and suggests that “it may even be possible that many
audience members may reject films without such high-tech adventures
and action” (38).
3. See my discussion of the science fiction film’s role in the construction of
Western culture’s attitudes toward the technological: J. P. Telotte, A Distant
Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age (Middletown, Conn.:
Wesleyan University Press, and Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New Eng-
land, 1999).
4. Nick Browne, “Preface,” in Browne, ed., Refiguring American Film Genres:
Theory and History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp.
iii–xiv. at p. xi.
5. Ibid., p. xiv.
6. Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methu-
en, 1981), p. 23.
7. Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Sci-
ence Fiction (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 6.
8. Brooks Landon, “Bet On It: Cyber/video/punk/performance,” in Larry Mc-
Caffery, ed., Storming the Reality Studio (Durham, N.C.: Duke University
Press, 1991), pp. 239–44, at p. 239.

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Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Tuchman, Mitch. “Close Encounter with Steven Spielberg.” Film Comment 14,
no. 1 (1978): 49–55.
Tudor, Andrew. Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror
Movie. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Virilio, Paul. “The Last Vehicle.” In Dietmar Kamper and Christoph Wulf, eds.,
Looking Back on the End of the World. New York: Semiotext(e), 1989, pp.
The Vision Machine. Trans. Julie Rose. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. Trans. Patrick Camiller. London:
Verso, 1989.
Wasko, Janet. Hollywood in the Information Age. Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1995.
Wilson, Louise. “Cyberwar, God and Television: Interview with Paul Virilio.”
Wilson, Richard Guy, Dianne H. Pilgrim, and Dickran Tashjian. The Machine Age
in America: 1918–1941. New York: Abrams, 1986.
224 ❖ B I B L I O G R A P H Y

Wolfe, Gary. The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction.
Kent: Kent State University Press, 1979.
Wright, Judith Hess. “Genre Films and the Status Quo.” In Grant, ed., Film Genre
Reader II, pp. 41–9.
Wright, Will. Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1975.
Select Filmography of the American
Science Fiction Film

The listing that follows is by no means a complete – or even nearly complete –

catalog of American science fiction films; rather, it represents a starting point
for study. It includes many of those films that are mentioned in the text, works
that have gained a classic or even a cult status, and others that for various rea-
sons represent important trends in the American development of this genre.
Some of the films listed here might arguably be included in a catalog of other
film genres – horror, comedy, even the musical. Many that I have chosen to omit
– including some rather unremarkable sequels to significant science fiction
films – deserve listing and viewing. However, I have tried to make this a useful
catalog, one that represents the scope, variety, and quality of the American sci-
ence fiction film, but one that also refrains from cataloging works simply for the
sake of numbers. For additional entries and information, one might consult the
more specialized filmographies in my Replications: A Robotic History of the Sci-
ence Fiction Film and A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine
Age, as well as various Internet resources, such as the Internet Movie Database

The Abyss (1989)

Lightstorm Entertainment / Pacific Western / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .:
James Cameron. PROD .:Gale Anne Hurd. SCR .: Cameron. PHOTOG .:
Mikael Salomon, Dennis Skotak. DESIGN : Leslie Dilley. CAST : Ed Harris,
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn. 140 min. (Extended
version, 171 min.)

Alien (1979)
Brandywine / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .: Ridley Scott. PROD .: Gordon
Carroll. SCR .: Dan O’Bannon. PHOTOG .: Derek Vanlint. ED .: Terry
Rawlings, Peter Weatherley. MUSIC : Jerry Goldsmith. CAST : Tom
Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, John Hurt. 116 min.

Aliens (1986)
Brandywine / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .: James Cameron. PROD .: Gale
Anne Hurd. SCR .: Cameron. PHOTOG .: Adrian Biddle. DESIGN : Peter
Lamont. ED .: Ray Lovejoy. SFX : Stan Winston. MUSIC : James Horner.
CAST : Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Carrie Henn. 138
min. (Extended version, 154 min.)

❖ 225
226 ❖ S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y

Altered States (1980)

Warner Bros. DIR .: Ken Russell. PROD .:Howard Gottfried. SCR .: Sidney
Aaron, Paddy Chayefsky. PHOTOG .: Jordan S. Cronenweth. ED .: Stuart
Baird, Eric Jenkins. DESIGN : Richard Macdonald. CAST : William Hurt,
Bob Balaban, Blair Brown, Dori Brenner. 103 min.

Android (1982)
Island Alive / New World. DIR .: Aaron Lipstadt. SCR .: James Reigle, Don
Opper. PHOTOG .: Tim Suhrstedt. ED .: Andy Horvitch. CAST : Klaus
Kinski, Norbert Weisser, Don Opper, Brie Howard. 80 min.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

MCA/Universal. DIR .: Robert Wise. PROD .: Wise. SCR .: Nelson Gidding
(based on the Michael Crichton novel). PHOTOG .: Richard H. Kline.
ED .: Stuart Gilmore, John W. Holmes. CAST : Arthur Hill, David Wayne,
Paula Kelly, Kate Reid. 131 min.

Armageddon (1998)
Jerry Bruckheimer Films / Touchstone / Valhalla. DIR .: Michael Bay.
PROD .: Jerry Bruckheimer, Gale Anne Hurd. SCR .: J. J. Abrams.
PHOTOG .: John Schwartzman. ED .: Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon.
CAST : Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Ben Affleck, Will
Patton. 150 min.

The Arrival (1996) [aka Shockwave]

Live Ent. / Steelwork / Orion. DIR .: David N. Twohy. PROD .: Thomas G.
Smith. SCR .: Twohy. PHOTOG .: Hiro Narita. ED .: Martin Hunter. CAST :
Charlie Sheen, Lindsey Crouse, Ron Silver. 109 min.

Back to the Future (1985)

Amblin Ent. / MCA / Universal. DIR .: Robert Zemeckis. PROD .: Neil
Canton and Bob Gale. SCR .: Zemeckis, Bob Gale. PHOTOG .: Dean
Cundey. ED .: Harry Keramidas, Arthur Schmidt. DESIGN : Lawrence G.
Paull. CAST : Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea
Thompson. 116 min.

Barbarella (1968) [aka Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy]

Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica / Marianne Prods. / Paramount.
DIR .: Roger Vadim. PROD .: Dino de Laurentiis. SCR .: Terry Southern,
Vadim, et al. PHOTOG .: Claude Renoir. DESIGN : Mario Garbuglia. CAST :
Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law, Milo O’Shea, David Hemmings. 98 min.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

Mutual / Warner Bros. DIR .: Eugène Lourié. PROD .: Jack Dietz. SCR .:
Fred Freiberger, Louis Morheim, Lourié (based on a Ray Bradbury
story). PHOTOG .: Jack Russell. ED .: Bernard W. Burton. ANIMATION :
Ray Harryhausen. CAST : Steve Brodie, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey,
Paula Raymond. 80 min.
S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y ❖ 227

Beginning of the End (1957)

AB–PT Pictures. DIR .: Bert I. Gordon. PROD .: Gordon. SCR .: Fred
Freiberger, Lester Gorn. PHOTOG .: Jack A. Marta. ED .: Aaron Stell.
CAST : Peter Graves, Peggie Castle, Morris Ankrum. 73 min.

The Black Hole (1979)

Walt Disney Prods. DIR .: Gary Nelson. PROD .: Ron Miller. SCR .: Jeb
Rosebrook, Gerry Day. DESIGN / SFX : Peter Ellenshaw. CAST : Maximilian
Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux. 97 min.

Blade Runner (1982)

Ladd Co. / Warner Bros. DIR .: Ridley Scott. SCR .: Hampton Fanchen,
David Peoples (based on Philip K. Dick’s story “Do Androids Dream of
Electric Sheep?”). PHOTOG .: Jordan Cronenweth. DESIGN : Lawrence G.
Paull. CAST : Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young. 124 min.

The Blob (1958)

Fairview Prods. / Tonylyn Prods. / Allied Artists. DIR .: Irwin S.
Yeaworth Jr. PROD .: Jack H. Harris. SCR .: Kate Phillips, Theodore
Simonson. PHOTOG .: Thomas E. Spalding. ED .: Alfred Hillmann. CAST :
Steven McQueen, Anita Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howlin. 86 min.

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

LQ/JAF. DIR .: L. Q. Jones. PROD .: Alvy Moore. SCR .: L. Q. Jones (based
on the Harlan Ellison story). PHOTOG .: John Arthur Morrill. ED .: Scott
Conrad. DESIGN : Ray Boyle. CAST : Don Johnson, Jason Robards Jr.,
Susanne Benton. 91 min.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Universal. DIR .: James Whale. PROD .:Carl Laemmle Jr. SCR .: John L.
Balderston, William Hurlbut. PHOTOG .: John D. Mescall. MUSIC : Franz
Waxman. CAST : Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa
Lanchester. 75 min.

The Bubble (1967) [aka The Zoo (3D)]

Arch Oboler Prods. DIR .: Arch Oboler. PROD .: Oboler. SCR .: Oboler.
ED .: Igo Kantor. CAST : Michael Cole, Deborah Walley, Johnny
Desmond. 112 min.

Buck Rogers (1939) [aka Buck Rogers Conquers the Universe]

Universal. DIR .: Ford I. Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind. PHOTOG .: Jerome
Ash. ED .: Joseph Gluck, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd. CAST : Larry “Buster”
Crabbe, Jackie Moran, Constance Moore, Anthony Warde, Jack Mulhall.
SERIAL : 12 episodes. Condensed compilation (1940), Desination Saturn.

A Clockwork Orange (1972)

Hawk Films / Polaris Prods. / Warner Bros. DIR .: Stanley Kubrick.
PROD .: Kubrick. SCR .: Kubrick (based on the Anthony Burgess novel).
228 ❖ S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y

John Alcott. ED .: William Butler. DESIGN : John Barry. CAST :
Malcolm McDowell, Patrick McGee, Warren Clark. 137 min.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

EMI / Columbia. DIR .: Steven Spielberg. PROD .: Julia and Michael
Phillips. SCR .: Spielberg (with Paul Schrader). PHOTOG .: Vilmos
Zsigmond. ED .: Michael Kahn. DESIGN : John Alves. MUSIC : John
Williams. CAST : Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, François Truffaut, Bob
Balaban. 132 min. (Special edition, 1980, 135 min.)

Cocoon (1985)
Zanuck / Brown Prods. / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .: Ron Howard. SCR .:
Tom Benedek, David Saperstein. PHOTOG .: Donald Peterman. ED .:
Daniel P. Hanley, Michael J. Hill. DESIGN : Jack T. Collis. CAST : Don
Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Brian Dennehy,
Steve Guttenberg. 117 min.

The Colossus of New York (1958)

Paramount. DIR .: Eugène Lourié. PROD .: William Alland. SCR .: Thelma
Schnee. PHOTOG .: John F. Warren. DESIGN : Hal Pereira, John Goodman.
ED .: Floyd Knudtson. CAST : Ross Martin, Mala Powers, Otto Kruger.
70 min.

Coma (1978)
MGM/UA. DIR .: Michael Crichton. PROD .: Martin Erlichman. SCR .:
Crichton. PHOTOG .: Victor J. Kemper, Gerald Hirschfeld. ED .: David
Britherton. DESIGN : Albert Brenner. CAST : Genevieve Bujold, Michael
Douglas, Elizabeth Ashley, Richard Widmark. 104 min.

The Conquest of Space (1955)

Paramount. DIR .: Byron Haskin. PROD .: George Pal. SCR .: Philip Yordan,
Barré Lyndon, George Worthing Yates, James O’Hanlon. PHOTOG .:
Lionel Linden. ED .: Everett Douglas. CAST : Walter Brooke, Eric Fleming,
Mickey Shaughnessy, Phil Foster. 81 min.

Cyborg (1989)
Golan–Globus. DIR .: Albert Pyun. PROD .: Menahem Golan, Yoram
Globus. SCR .: Kitty Chalmers. PHOTOG .: Philip Alan Waters. DESIGN :
Douglas Leonard. MUSIC : Kevin Bassinson. CAST : Jean-Claude Van
Damme, Deborah Richter, Vincent Klyn, Alex Daniels. 86 min.

Dark City (1998)

Mystery Clock / New Line. DIR .: Alex Proyas. PROD .: Proyas. SCR .:
Proyas and Lem Dobbs. PHOTOG .: Dariusz Wolski. ED .: Dov Hoenig.
CAST : Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly.
100 min.
S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y ❖ 229

Dark Star (1973)

Jack H. Harris Ent. DIR .: John Carpenter. PROD .: Carpenter. SCR .:
Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon. PHOTOG .: Douglas H. Knapp. ED .:
O’Bannon. MUSIC : Carpenter. CAST : Brian Narelle, Dan O’Bannon,
Jeanna Fine. 91 min.

D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)
Columbia / Paramount / World Film. DIR .: Simon Wincer. PROD .: John
Heyman. SCR .: David Ambrose, Allan Scott, Jeffrey Ellis. MUSIC : Marvin
Hamlisch. CAST : Barret Oliver, Mary Beth Hurt, Michael McKean.
100 min.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

20th Century–Fox. DIR .: Robert Wise. PROD .: Julian Blaustein. SCR .:
Edmund North. PHOTOG .: Leo Tover. MUSIC : Bernard Herrmann. ED .:
William Reynolds. DESIGN : Lyle Wheeler, Addison Hehr. CAST : Michael
Rennie, Patricia Neal, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray. 92 min.

The Day the World Ended (1956)

Golden State / ARC. DIR .: Roger Corman. PROD .: Corman. SCR .: Lou
Russoff. PHOTOG .: Jackey A. Feindel. ED .: Ronald Sinclair. SFX : Paul
Blaisdell. CAST : Richard Denning, Adele Jergens, Lori Nelson, Paul
Birch. 79 min.

Deep Impact (1998)

DreamWorks SKG / Paramount / Zanuck / Brown Prods. DIR .: Mimi Leder.
PROD .: Richard D. Zanuck. SCR .: Bruce Joel Rubin, Michael Tolkin.
PHOTOG .: Dietrich Lohmann. ED .: Paul Cichoki, David Rosenbloom.
CAST : Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave,
Morgan Freeman. 120 min.

Demon Seed (1977)

MGM. DIR .: Donald Cammell. PROD .: Herb Joffe. SCR .: Robert Jaffe,
Roger O. Hirson (based on Dean R. Koontz’s novel). PHOTOG .: Bill
Butler. ED .: Frank Mazzola. CAST : Julie Christie, Fritz Weaver, Gerrit
Graham. 97 min.

Destination Moon (1950)

George Pal Prods. / Eagle-Lion. DIR .: Irving Pichel. PROD .: George Pal.
SCR .: James O’Hanlon, Robert A. Heinlein, Rip Van Ronkel. PHOTOG .:
Lionel Lindon. ED .: Duke Goldstone. CAST : John Archer, Warner
Anderson, Tom Powers, Dick Wesson. 91 min.

Dr. Cyclops (1940)

Paramount. DIR .: Ernest B. Schoedsack. PROD .: Merian C. Cooper. SCR .:
Tom Kilpatrick. PHOTOG .: Henry Sharp. ED .: Wellsworth Hoagland.
CAST : Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Paul Fix, Janice Logan. 76 min.
230 ❖ S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the

Bomb (1964)
Hawk Films / Columbia. DIR .: Stanley Kubrick. PROD .: Kubrick.
SCR .: Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George. PHOTOG .: Gilbert Taylor.
DESIGN : Ken Adam. ED .: Anthony Harvey. CAST : Peter Sellers, George
C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens. 102 min.

Doctor X (1932)
Warner Bros. DIR .: Michael Curtiz. SCR .: Earl W. Baldwin, Robert
Tasker. PHOTOG .: Ray Rennahan, Richard Tower. ED .: George J. Amy.
CAST : Lionel Atwill, Faye Wray, Preston Foster, Lee Tracy. 77 min.

Dune (1984)
De Laurentiis / Universal. DIR .: David Lynch. PROD .: Dino de Laurentiis.
SCR .: Lynch (based on the Frank Hebert novel). PHOTOG .: Freddie
Francis. ED .: Antony Gibbs. DESIGN : Anthony Masters. CAST : Francesca
Annis, Kyle MacLaughlan, Jurgen Prochnow, Brad Dourif. 137 min.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Universal. DIR .: Steven Spielberg. PROD .: Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg.
PHOTOG .: Allen Daviau. ED .: Carol Littleton. DESIGN : James D. Bissell.
CAST : Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaugh-
ton, Drew Barrymore. 115 min.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

Clover / Columbia. DIR .: Fred F. Sears. SCR .: George Worthing Yates,
Raymond T. Marcus. PHOTOG .: Fred Jackman Jr. DESIGN : Paul
Palmentola. ED .: Danny B. Landres. SFX / ANIMATION : Ray Harryhausen.
CAST : Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis. 83 min.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) [aka Star Wars Episode V]

Lucasfilm / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .: Irvin Kershner. PROD .: Gary Kurtz.
SCR .: Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan. STORY : George Lucas.
PHOTOG .: Peter Suschitzky. DESIGN : Norman Reynolds. ED .: Paul
Hirsch. MUSIC : John Williams. CAST : Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford,
Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams. 124 min.

Escape from New York (1981)

AVCO Embassy. DIR .: John Carpenter. PROD .: Larry J. Franco and
Debra Hill. SCR .: Carpenter, Nick Castle. PHOTOG .: Dean Cundey, Jim
Lucas. DESIGN : John Alves. ED .: Todd C. Ramsey. CAST : Kurt Russell,
Lee Van Cleef, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine. 99 min.

Eve of Destruction (1991)

Interscope Commun. / Nelson Ent. / Orion. DIR .: Duncan Gibbins.
PROD .: David Madden. SCR .: Duncan Gibbins, Yale Udoff. PHOTOG .:
Alan Hume. ED .: Caroline Biggerstaff. DESIGN : Peter Lamont. CAST :
Gregory Hines, Renee Soutendjik. 101 min.
S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y ❖ 231

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

20th Century–Fox. DIR .: Richard Fleischer. PROD .: Saul David. SCR .:
David Duncan, Harry Kleiner. PHOTOG .: Ernest Laszlo. ED .: William B.
Murphy. CAST : Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Edmond O’Brien, Donald
Pleasence. 100 min.

The Fifth Element (1997)

Gaumont / Columbia. DIR .: Luc Besson. PROD .: Iain Smith and Patrice
Ledoux. SCR .: Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. PHOTOG .: Thierry
Arbogast. ED .: Sylvie Landen. DESIGN : Dan Weil. CAST : Bruce Willis,
Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich. 126 min.

Five (1951)
Arch Oboler Prods. / Columbia. DIR .: Arch Oboler. PROD .: Oboler. SCR .:
Oboler. PHOTOG .: Louis Clyde Stouman. ED .: Sid Lubow. CAST : William
Phipps, James Anderson, Susan Douglas, Earl Lee, Charles Lampkin.
93 min.

Flash Gordon (1936)

Universal. DIR .: Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor. PROD .: Henry MacRae.
SCR .: Stephani, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Ella O’Neill (based on
Alex Raymond’s comic strip). PHOTOG .: Jerome H. Ash, Richard Fryer.
ART DIR .: Ralph Berger. CAST : Larry “Buster” Crabbe, Jean Rogers,
Charles Middleton, Frank Shannon. SERIAL : 13 episodes. Condensed
compilation (1936), Spaceship to the Unknown: Space Soldiers [aka
Flash Gordon: Rocketship]

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

New Star / PSO / Viking / Walt Disney Prods. DIR .: Randal Kleiser. SCR .:
Mark H. Baker, Michael Burton, Matt McManus. PHOTOG .: James
Glennon. DESIGN : William J. Creber. ED .: Jeff Gourson. CAST : Joey
Cramer, Paul Reubens, Veronica Cartwright. 90 min.

The Fly (1958)

20th Century–Fox. DIR .: Kurt Neumann. PROD .: Kurt Neumann. SCR .:
James Cavell. PHOTOG .: Karl Struss. ED .: Merril G. White. DESIGN : Lyle
R. Wheeler, Theobold Holsopple. CAST : Al (David) Hedison, Patricia
Owens, Vincent Price. 94 min.

The Fly (1986)

Brooksfilms / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .: David Cronenberg. PROD .: Stuart
Cornfeld. SCR .: Charles Edward Pogue. PHOTOG .: Mark Irwin. ED .:
Ronald Sanders, Steve Weslak. CAST : Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John
Getz. 100 min.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

MGM. DIR .: Fred McLeod Wilcox. PROD .: Nicholas Nayfack. SCR .: Cyril
Hume. PHOTOG .: George Folsey. DESIGN : Cedric Gibbons, Arthur
232 ❖ S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y

Lonergan. CAST : Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, Warren

Stevens. 98 min.

Frankenstein (1931)
Universal. DIR .: James Whale. PROD .: Carl Laemmle Jr. SCR .: Garrett
Fort, Francis Edward Farough (based on the Mary Shelley novel).
PHOTOG .: Arthur Edeson. CAST : Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clark,
Edward Van Sloan. 71 min.

From the Earth to the Moon (1958)

Warner Bros. DIR .: Byron Haskin. PROD .: Benedict E. Bogeaus.
SCR .: Robert Blees. PHOTOG .: Edwin DuPar. ED .: James Leicester.
CAST : Joseph Cotton, George Sanders, Debra Paget. 100 min.

Futureworld (1976)
American International. DIR .: Richard T. Heffron. PROD .: Paul Lazarus
III. SCR .: Mayo Simon, George Schenck. PHOTOG .: Howard Schwartz,
Gene Polito. ED .: James Mitchell. CAST : Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner,
Arthur Hill, Yul Brynner. 104 min.

Gattaca (1997)
Columbia / Jersey. DIR .: Andrew Niccol. SCR .: Niccol. PHOTOG .:
Slavomir Idziak. ED .: Lisa Zeno Churgin. CAST : Ethan Hawke, Uma
Thurman, Gore Vidal, Xander Berkeley. 101 min.

The Giant Claw (1957)

Clover / Columbia. DIR .: Fred F. Sears. PROD .: Sam Katzman. SCR .: Paul
Ganglin, Samuel Newman. PHOTOG .: Benjamin H. Kline. ED .: Anthony
DiMarco, Saul A. Goodkind. CAST : Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Louis
Merrill. 75 min.

The Guyver (1991) [aka Mutronics]

Imperial Ent. / New Line (U.S.–Japan). DIR .: Screaming Mad George,
Steve Wang. PROD .: Brian Yuzma. PHOTOG .: Levie Isaacks. ED .: Andy
Horvitch. DESIGN : Matthew C. Jacobs. CAST : Mark Hamill, Vivian Wu,
Jack Armstrong. 92 min.

The Hidden (1987)

Heron / New Line / Third Elm Street Venture. DIR .: Jack Sholder.
SCR .: Bob Hunt. PHOTOG .: Jacques Haitkin. ED .: Michael Knue.
MUSIC : Michael Convertino. CAST : Michael Nouri, Kyle MacLachlan.
98 min.

I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)

Paramount. DIR .: Gene Fowler Jr. SCR .: Louis Vittes. PHOTOG .: Haskell
Boggs. ED .: George Tomasini. DESIGN : Jal Pereira, Henry Bumstead.
CAST : Tom Tryon, Gloria Talbott, Ken Lynch. 78 min.
S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y ❖ 233

The Illustrated Man (1969)

SKM / Warner Bros. DIR .: Jack Smight. PROD .: Howard B. Kreitsek and
Ted Mann. SCR .: Ray Bradbury (based on his novel) and Howard B.
Kreitsek. PROD .: Kreitsek and Ted Mann. PHOTOG .: Philip H. Lathrop.
CAST : Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, Robert Drivas. 100 min.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Universal–International. DIR .: Jack Arnold. PROD .: Albert Zugsmith.
SCR .: Richard Alan Simmons, Richard Matheson (based on Matheson’s
novel). PHOTOG .: Willis W. Carter. ED .: Albrecht Joseph. CAST : Grant
Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent. 81 min.

Invaders from Mars (1953)

National / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .: William Cameron Menzies. PROD .:
Edward L. Alperson. SCR .: Richard Blake (and John Tucker Battle).
PHOTOG .: John Seitz. ED .: Arthur Roberts. DESIGN : Menzies. CAST :
Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt. 78 min.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) [aka Sleep No More]

Allied Artists / Walter Wanger Prods. DIR .: Don Siegel. PROD .: Walter
Wanger. SCR .: Daniel Mainwaring. PHOTOG .: Ellsworth Fredericks.
DESIGN : Edward Haworth. CAST : Kevin McCarthey, Dana Wynter, King
Donovan, Carolyn Jones. 80 min.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Solofilm / United Artists. DIR .: Philip Kaufman. PROD .: Robert H. Solo.
SCR .: W. D. Richter (and Kaufman). PHOTOG .: Michael Chapman. ED .:
Douglas Stewart. DESIGN : Charles Rosen. CAST : Donald Sutherland,
Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright.
115 min.

Invasion, U.S.A. (1952)

American / Columbia. DIR .: Alfred E. Green. SCR .: Franz Schulz, Robert
Smith. PHOTOG .: John L. Russell. ED .: W. Donn Hayes. SFX : Jack Rabin.
CAST : Gerald Mohr, Peggie Castle, Dan O’Herlihy. 73 min.

The Invisible Boy (1957) [aka S.O.S. Spaceship]

MGM / Pan. DIR .: Herman Hoffman. PROD .: Nicholas Nayfack. SCR .:
Cyril Hume. PHOTOG .: Harold Wellman. ED .: John Faure. DESIGN :
Merrill Pye. CAST : Richard Eyer, Diane Brewster, Philip Abbot.
90 min.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Universal. DIR .: James Whale. PROD .: Carl Laemmle Jr. SCR .: R. C.
Sherriff (based on the H. G. Wells novel). PHOTOG .: Arthur Edeson.
ED .: Ted J. Kent. CAST : Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, Henry Travers,
E. E. Clive. 71 min.
234 ❖ S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y

The Invisible Ray (1936)

Universal. DIR .: Lambert Hillyer. PROD .: Edmund Grainger. SCR .: John
Colton. PHOTOG .: George Robinson, John P. Fulton. CAST : Boris Karloff,
Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake. 81 min.

Island of Lost Souls (1933) [aka The Island of Dr. Moreau]

Paramount. DIR .: Erle C. Kenton. SCR .: Waldemar Young, Philip Wylie
(based on the H. G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau). PHOTOG .:
Karl Struss. CAST : Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams.
70 min.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

Vogue Pictures / United Artists. DIR .: Edward L. Cahn. PROD .: Robert
Kent. SCR .: Jerome Bixby. PHOTOG .: Kenneth Peach. ED .: Grant
Whytock. CAST : Marshall Thompson, Shawn Smith, Ann Doran,
Richard Benedict, Ray “Crash” Corrigan. 68 min.

It Came from Outer Space (1953)

Universal–International. DIR .: Jack Arnold. SCR .: Harry Essex. PHOTOG .:
Clifford Stine. DESIGN : Bernard Herzbrun, Robert Boyle. ED .: Paul
Weatherwax. CAST : Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe
Sawyer. 81 min.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) [aka Trip to the Center of the
20th Century–Fox. DIR .: Henry Levin. SCR .: Charles Brackett, Robert
Gunter (based on the Jules Verne novel). PHOTOG .: Leo Tover. ED .:
Stuart Gilmore, Jack W. Holmes. MUSIC : Bernard Herrmann. CAST :
James Mason, Arlene Dahl, Pat Boone. 132 min.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Amblin / Universal. DIR .: Steven Spielberg. PROD .: Kathleen Kennedy
and Gerald R. Molen. SCR .: Michael Crichton, David Koepp (based on
Crichton’s novel). PHOTOG .: Dean Cundey. ED .: Michael Kahn. MUSIC :
John Williams. CAST : Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard
Attenborough. 127 min.

Just Imagine (1930)

Fox. DIR .: David Butler. SCR .: Butler (from story by Buddy DeSylva,
Lew Brown, Ray Henderson). MUSIC : DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson.
PHOTOG .: Ernest Palmer. ED .: Irene Morra. CAST : John Garrick, El
Brendel, Maureen O’Sullivan. 107 min.

The Last Starfighter (1984)

Lorimar / Universal. DIR .: Nick Castle Jr. PROD .: Garry Adelson and
Edward O. Denault. SCR .: Jonathan R. Betuel. PHOTOG .: King Baggot.
ED .: Carroll Timothy O’Meara. CAST : Dan O’Herlihy, Robert Preston,
Catherine Stewart, Lance Guest. 100 min.
S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y ❖ 235

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Allied Vision / Fuiji 8 / New Line. DIR .: Brett Leonard. PROD .: Gimel
Everett. PHOTOG .: Russell Carpenter. ED .: Alan Baumgarten. DESIGN :
Alex McDowell. CAST : Jeff Fahey, Pierce Brosnan, Jenny Wright.
108 min.

Logan’s Run (1976)

MGM–UA. DIR .: Michael Anderson. PROD .: Saul David. SCR .: David
Zelag Goodman (based on William F. Nolan and George Clayton
Johnson’s novel). PHOTOG .: Ernest Laszlo. ED .: Bob Wyman. CAST :
Michael York, Jenny Agutter, Peter Ustinov. 118 min.

Mad Love (1935) [aka The Hands of Orlac]

MGM. DIR .: Karl Freund. SCR .: Guy Endore, P. J. Wolfson, John Balder-
ston. PHOTOG .: Chester Lyons, Gregg Toland. CAST : Colin Clive, Peter
Lorre, Frances Drake. 83 min.

Making Mr. Right (1987)

Barry Enright Film / Orion. DIR .: Susan Seidelman. SCR .: Floyd Byars,
Laurie Frank. PHOTOG .: Edward Lachman. DESIGN : Barbara Ling.
CAST : John Malkovich, Ann Magnuson, Glenne Headly. 98 min.

Man Made Monster (1941) [aka Atomic Monster]

Universal. DIR .: George Waggner. SCR .: Joseph West (George Waggner).
PHOTOG .: Elwood Bredell. ED .: Arthur Hilton. CAST : Lionell Atwil, Lon
Chaney Jr., Anne Nagel. 68 min.

Marooned (1969) [aka Space Travelers]

Columbia. DIR .: John Sturges. PROD .: M. J. Frankovich. SCR .: Mayo
Simon and Martin Caidin. PHOTOG .: Daniel Fapp. ED .: Walter
Thompson. CAST : Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen.
134 min.

The Matrix (1999)

Groucho II Film Ptnrshp / Silver / Village Roadshow / Warner Bros. DIR .:
Andy and Larry Wachowski. PROD .: Joel Silver. SCR .: Andy and Larry
Wachowski. PHOTOG .: Bill Pope. ED .: Zach Staenberg. PROD . DES .:
Owen Patterson. CAST : Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-
Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano. 136 min.

The Mysterious Island (1929)

MGM. DIR .: Lucien Hubbard, [Benjamin Christensen, and Maurice
Tourneur]. PROD .: J. Ernest Williamson. SCR .: Lucien Hubbard, Carl L.
Pierson (based on the Jules Verne novel). PHOTOG .: Percy Hilburn.
ART DIR .: Cedric Gibbons. MUSIC : Martin Broones, Arthur Lange.
CAST : Lionel Barrymore, Jane Daly, Harry Gribbon, Montague Love.
95 min.
236 ❖ S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y

The Omega Man (1971)

Warner Bros. DIR .: Boris Sagal. PROD .: Walter Seltzer. SCR .: John
William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington (based on Richard
Matheson [as Logan Swanson] novel I Am Legend). PHOTOG .: Russell
Metty. ED .: William H. Ziegler. CAST : Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe,
Rosalind Cash. 98 min.

On the Beach (1959)

Lomitas / United Artists. DIR .: Stanley Kramer. PROD .: Kramer. SCR .:
John Paxton. PHOTOG .: Guiseppe Rotunno. DESIGN : Rudolph Steinrad.
ED .: Cliff Bell. CAST : Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony
Perkins. 134 min.

Outland (1981)
Outland Prods. / The Ladd Co. DIR .: Peter Hyams. SCR .: Hyams.
PHOTOG .: Stephen Goldblatt. ED .: Stuart Baird. CAST : Peter Boyle,
Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen. 109 min.

Panic in the Year Zero (1962) [aka End of the World]

American International. DIR .: Ray Milland. SCR .: John Morton, Jay
Simms. PHOTOG .: Gilbert Warrenton. ED .: William Austin. CAST : Ray
Milland, Frankie Avalon, Jean Hagan, Joan Freeman. 95 min.

The Phantom Creeps (1939) [aka The Shadow Creeps]

Universal. DIR .: Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind. SCR .: Mildred Barish,
Willis Cooper, Basil Dickey, George Plympton. PHOTOG .: Jerry Ash,
William Sickner. CAST : Bela Lugosi, Robert Kent, Dorothy Arnold.
SERIAL : 12 episodes.

The Phantom Empire (1935) [aka Gene Autry and the Phantom
Mascot. DIR .: Otto Brower, B. Reeves Eason. PROD .: Armand Schaefer.
SCR .: Wallace MacDonald, Gerald Geraghty, H. Freedman. CAST : Gene
Autry, Smiley Burnette, Frankie Darro, Betsy Ross King. SERIAL : 12

The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)

Cinema Group Venture / New Pictures. DIR .: Stewart Raffill. PROD .:
Douglas Curtis and Joel B. Michaels. SCR .: William Gray, Michael
Janover. PHOTOG .: Dick Bush. ED .: Neil Travis. CAST : Michael Paré,
Nancy Allen, Bobby DiCicco, Louise Latham. 102 min.

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956)

DCA. DIR .: Edward D. Wood Jr. SCR .: Wood. ED .: Wood. PHOTOG .:
William C. Thompson. SFX : Charles Duncan. CAST : John Breckinridge,
Tor Johnson, Bela Lugosi. 78 min.
S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y ❖ 237

Planet of the Apes (1968)

APJAC / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .: Franklin J. Schaffner. PROD .: Arthur P.
Jacobs. SCR .: Rod Serling, Michael Wilson (based on the Pierre Boulle
novel). PHOTOG .: Leon Shamroy. ED .: Hugh S. Fowler. CAST : Charlton
Heston, Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans. 112 min.

Predator (1987)
Amercent / American Entertainment Partners / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .:
John McTiernan. SCR .: James E. and John C. Thomas. PHOTOG .:
Donald McAlpine. ED .: Mark Helfrich, John F. Link. CAST : Arnold
Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Carl Weathers. 106 min.

The Purple Monster Strikes (1945) [aka The Purple Shadow Strikes]
Republic. DIR .: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Fred C. Brannon. SCR .: Royal
K. Cole et al. PHOTOG .: Bud Thackery. ED .: Cliff Bell, Harold Minter.
CAST : Dennis Moore, Linda Stirling, Roy Barcroft. SERIAL : 15 episodes.

The Questor Tapes (1974)

Jeffrey Hayes Prod. / Universal. DIR .: Richard A. Colla. PROD .: Howie
Horwitz. SCR .: Gene Roddenberry, Gene L. Coon. PHOTOG .: Michael
Margulies. ED .: Robert L. Kimble, J. Terry Wiliams. MUSIC : Gil Melle.
CAST : Robert Foxworth, Mike Farrell, Lew Ayres, Dana Wynter. 97
min., TV movie.

Radar Men from the Moon (1951)

Republic. DIR .: Fred C. Brannon. SCR .: Ronald Davidson. PHOTOG .:
John MacBurnie. ED .: Cliff Bell. CAST : George Wallace, Roy Barcroft,
Clayton Moore. SERIAL : 12 episodes.

The Return of the Fly (1959)

20th Century–Fox. DIR .: Edward L. Bernds. PROD .: Bernard Glasser.
SCR .: Bernds. PHOTOG .: Brydon Baker. ED .: Richard C. Meyer. DESIGN :
Lyle R. Wheeler, John Mansbridge. CAST : Vincent Price, Brett Halsey,
David Frankham. 78 min.

Return of the Jedi (1983) [aka Star Wars Episode VI]

Lucasfilm / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .: Richard Marquand. PROD .: Jim
Bloom and Robert Watts. SCR .: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas.
PHOTOG .: Alan Hume. ED .: Sean Barton, Marcia Lucas, Duwayne
Dunham. DESIGN : Norman Reynolds. MUSIC : John Williams. CAST : Mark
Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams. 133 min.

Riders to the Stars (1954)

A-men Prods. / United Artists. DIR .: Richard Carlson [and Herbert L.
Strock]. PROD .: Ivan Tors. SCR .: Curt Siodmak. PHOTOG .: Stanley
Cortez. ED .: Herbert L. Strock. CAST : Richard Carlson, Martha Hyer,
Herbert Marshall, Dawn Addams. 81 min.
238 ❖ S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Devonshire / Paramount. DIR .: Byron Haskin. PROD .: Aubrey Schenck.
SCR .: John C. Higgins. PHOTOG .: Winton C. Hoch. ED .: Terry O. Morse.
MUSIC : Van Cleave. CAST : Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West.
110 min.

RoboCop (1987)
Orion. DIR .: Paul Verhoeven. PROD .: Edward Neumeier and Arne
Schmidt. SCR .: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner. PHOTOG .: Jost Vacaro.
DESIGN : William Sandell. SFX : Peter Kuran. CAST : Peter Weller, Nancy
Allen, Ronny Cox, Daniel O’Herlihy. 105 min.

RoboCop 2 (1990)
Orion. DIR .: Irvin Kershner. PROD .: Jon Davison. SCR .: Frank Miller,
Walon Green. PHOTOG .: Mark Irwin. ED .: Deborah Zeitman, Lee Smith,
Armen Minasian. DESIGN : Peter Jamison. MUSIC : Leonard Rosenman.
CAST : Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Tom Noonan,
Belinda Bauer. 116 min.

Robot Jox (1990)

Altar Prods. / Empire Pictures. DIR .: Stuart Gordon. PROD .: Albert Ball.
SCR .: Joe Haldeman, from story by Stuart Gordon. PHOTOG .: Marc
Ahlberg. ED .: Ted Nicolaou, Lori Scott Bal. DESIGN : Giovanni Natalucci.
MUSIC : Frederic Talgorn. CAST : Gary Graham, Anne-Marie Johnson,
Paul Koslo, Michael Alldredge. 84 min.

Robot Monster (1953) [aka Monster from Mars; Monsters from

the Moon]
Astor Pictures. DIR .: Phil Tucker. PROD .: Phil Tucker. SCR .: Wyott
Ordung. PHOTOG .: Jack Greenhalgh. ED .: Merrill White. MUSIC : Elmer
Bernstein. CAST : George Nader, Claudia Barrett, Selena Royale, John
Mylong, George Barrows. 63 min.

The Rocketeer (1991)

Gordon Co. / Silver Screen Partners / Touchstone / Walt Disney Prods.
DIR .: Joe Johnston. SCR .: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo. PHOTOG .: Hiro
Narita. ED .: Arthur Schmidt. DESIGN : James D. Bissell. CAST : Alan
Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly. 109 min.

Rocketship X-M (1950)

Lippert. DIR .: Kurt Neumann. PROD .: Neumann. SCR .: Neumann.
PHOTOG .: Karl Struss. ED .: Harry W. Gerstad. MUSIC : Ferde Grofe Sr. SFX :
Don Stewart. CAST : John Emery, Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen. 77 min.

Saturn 3 (1980)
ITC / Transcontinental (Britain). DIR .: Stanley Donen [and John Barry].
PROD .: Donen. SCR .: Martin Amis. PHOTOG .: Billy Williams. MUSIC : Elmer
Bernstein. CAST : Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, Harvey Keitel. 88 min.
S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y ❖ 239

Scanners (1981)
CFDC / Filmplan (Canada). DIR .: David Cronenberg. PROD .: Claude
Heroux. SCR .: Cronenberg. PHOTOG .: Mark Irwin. ED .: Ronald Sanders.
MUSIC : Howard Shore. CAST : Patrick McGoohan, Stephen Lack,
Jennifer O’Neill. 102 min.
Seconds (1966)
Joel Prods. /John Frankenheimer Prods. /Paramount. DIR .: John Frank-
enheimer. PROD .: Edward Lewis. SCR .: Lewis John Carlino. PHOTOG .:
James Wong Howe. DESIGN : Ted Haworth. MUSIC : Jerry Goldsmith.
CAST : Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Salmoe Jens, Will Geer. 106 min.

Short Circuit (1986)

PSO / TriStar. DIR .: John Badham. PROD .: David Foster, Lawrence
Turman. SCR .: S. S. Wilson, Brent Maddock. ED .: Frank Moriss. CAST :
Steven Guttenberg, Ally Sheedy, Fisher Stevens. 98 min.
Silent Running (1972)
Michael Gruskoff Prods. / Universal. DIR .: Douglas Trumbull. PROD .:
Michael Gruskoff and Douglas Trumbull. SCR .: Deric Washburn,
Michael Cimino, Steve Bochco. PHOTOG .: Charles F. Wheeler. MUSIC :
Peter Schickele. CAST : Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin. 89 min.
Six Hours to Live (1932)
Fox. DIR .: William Dieterle. SCR .: Bradley King. PHOTOG .: George F.
Seitz. CAST : Warner Baxter, Irene Ware, John Boles, George Marion.
78 min.
Sleeper (1973)
Rollins–Joffe / UA. DIR .: Woody Allen. PROD .: Charles H. Joffe. SCR .:
Allen, Marshall Brickman. PHOTOG .: David M. Walsh. ED .: Ron Kalish,
Ralph Rosenblum. CAST : Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, John Beck, Mary
Gregory. 88 min.
Soylent Green (1973)
MGM. DIR .: Richard Fleischer. PROD .: Walter Seltzer and Russell
Thacher. SCR .: Stanley G. Greenberg. PHOTOG .: Richard Kline. ED .:
Samuel E. Bentley. DESIGN : Edward C. Carfagno. CAST : Charlton Heston,
Edward G. Robinson, Whit Bissell, Leigh Taylor-Young. 95 min.
Species (1995)
MGM. DIR .: Roger Donaldson. PROD .: Denis Feldman and Frank
Mancuso Jr. SCR .: Dennis Feldman. PHOTOG .: Andrzej Bartkowick.
ED .: Conrad Buff IV, Randy Thom. DESIGN : John Muto. CAST : Ben
Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Marge Helgenberger. 108 min.
Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979)
Century Assoc. / Paramount. DIR .: Robert Wise. PROD .: Gene Rodden-
berry. SCR .: Harold Livingstone. CAST : William Shatner, Leonard
240 ❖ S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y

Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Persis

Khambatta, Stephen Collins. 132 min.

Star Trek [II]: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Paramount. DIR .: Nicholas Meyer. SCR .: Jack B. Sowards. PHOTOG .:
Gayne Rescher. ED .: William P. Dornisch. CAST : William Shatner,
Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols,
Ricardo Montalban. 113 min.

Star Wars (1977) [aka Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope]

20th Century–Fox. DIR .: George Lucas. PROD .: Gary Kurtz. SCR .: Lucas.
PHOTOG .: Gilbert Taylor. ED .: Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, Richard Chew.
DESIGN : John Barry. SFX : John Dykstra. MUSIC : John Williams. CAST :
Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guiness. 121 min.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

Lucasfilm / 20th Century–Fox. DIR .: George Lucas. PROD .: Rick
McCallum. SCR .: Lucas. MUSIC : John Williams. PHOTOG .: David
Tattersall. ED .: Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith. CAST : Liam Neeson,
Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd. 136 min.

Stargate (1994)
Carolco / Centropolis. DIR .: Roland Emmerich. SCR .: Emmerich, Dean
Devlin. PHOTOG .: Karl Walter Lindenlaub. ED .: Derek Brechin, Michael
J. Duthie. CAST : Kurt Russell, James Spader, Jaye Davidson. 121 min.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Big Bug / Touchstone / TriStar. DIR .: Paul Verhoeven. SCR .: Ed Neumeier
(based on the Robert A. Heinlein novel). PHOTOG .: Jost Vacaro. ED .:
Mark Goldblatt, Caroline Ross. DESIGN : Allen Cameron. CAST : Casper
Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris. 129 min.

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Fadsin Cinema Assoc. / Paloma / Columbia. DIR .: Bryan Forbes. PROD .:
Edgar J. Scherick. SCR .: William Goldman (based on Ira Levin’s novel).
PHOTOG .: Owen Roizman. DESIGN : Gene Callahan. MUSIC : Michael
Small. CAST : Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Tina
Louise, William Prince. 114 min.

The Terminal Man (1974)

Warner Bros. DIR .: Mike Hodges. PROD .: Hodges. SCR .: Hodges (based
on Michael Crichton’s novel). CAST : George Segal, Joan Hackett,
Richard Dysart. 107 min.

The Terminator (1984)

Hemdale. DIR .: James Cameron. PROD .: Gale Anne Hurd. SCR .:
Cameron, Hurd. PHOTOG .: Adam Greenberg. SFX : Stan Winston.
S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y ❖ 241

CAST : Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

108 min.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) [aka T2]

Carolco / Le Studio Canal / Lightstorm Entertainment / Pacific Western.
DIR .: James Cameron. PROD .: Cameron. SCR .: Cameron, William Wisher.
CAST : Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong,
Robert Patrick. 135 in.

Them! (1954)
Warner Bros. DIR .: Gordon Douglas. PROD .: David Weisbart. SCR .: Rus-
sell S. Hughes, Ted Sherdeman. PHOTOG .: Sidney Hickox. ED .: Thomas
Reilly. CAST : James Whitmore, James Arness, Joan Weldon, Edmund
Gwenn. 93 min.

The Thing (1982)

Turman-Foster Co. / Universal. DIR .: John Carpenter. PROD .: Stuart
Cohen and David Foster. SCR .: Bill Lancaster (based on John W.
Campbell Jr.’s story “Who Goes There?”). SFX : Rob Bottin (and Stan
Winston). CAST : Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart,
Richard Masur. 127 min.

The Thing from Another World (1951) [aka The Thing]

RKO / Winchester. DIR .: Christian Nyby [and Howard Hawks]. PROD .:
Howard Hawks. SCR .: Charles Lederer (based loosely on John W.
Campbell Jr.’s story “Who Goes There?”). PHOTOG .: Russell Harlan.
ED .: Roland Gross. CAST : Kenneth Tobey, James Arness, Margaret
Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite, Dewey Martin. 87 min.

This Island Earth (1955)

Sabre Prods. / Universal–International. DIR .: Joseph M. Newman [and
Jack Arnold]. PROD .: William Alland. SCR .: Franklin Coen, Edward G.
O’Callaghan. PHOTOG .: Clifford Stine. ED .: Virgil Vogel. CAST : Jeff
Morrow, Rex Reason, Faith Domergue. 87 min.

THX 1138 (1971)

Warner Bros. DIR .: George Lucas. PROD .: Lawrence Sturhahn. SCR .:
Lucas, Walter Murch. PHOTOG .: Dave Meyers, Albert Kihn. DESIGN :
Michael Haller. CAST : Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie
McOmie. 88 min. (Based on Lucas’s earlier short film Electronic
Labyrinth: THX 1138: 4EB.)

Time After Time (1979)

Warner Bros. / Zoetrope. DIR .: Nicholas Meyer. PROD .: Herb Jaffe. SCR .:
Meyer. PHOTOG .: Paul Lohmann. ED .: Don Cambern. MUSIC : Miklos
Rosza. CAST : Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, David Warner,
Shelley Hack. 112 min.
242 ❖ S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y

The Time Machine (1960)

Galaxy / MGM. DIR .: George Pal. PROD .: Pal. SCR .: David Duncan (based
on the H. G. Wells novel). PHOTOG .: Paul C. Vogel. ED .: George
Tomassini. CAST : Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux. 103 min.

Timecop (1994)
Dark Horse Ent. / JVC Ent. / Largo Ent. / Renaissance / Signature /
Universal. DIR .: Peter Hyams. SCR .: Mark Verheiden. PHOTOG .: Peter
Hyams. ED .: Steven Kemper. DESIGN : Philip Harrison. CAST : Jean-
Claude Van Damme, Mia Sara, Ron Silver. 98 min.

Total Recall (1990)

TriStar / Carolco. DIR .: Paul Verhoeven. PROD .: Ronald Shusett, Buzz
Feitshans. SCR .: Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Garry Goldman
(based on Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It for You Whole-
sale”). PHOTOG .: Jost Vacano. ED .: Frank J. Urioste. DESIGN : William
Sandell. MUSIC : Gerry Goldsmith. CAST : Arnold Schwarzenegger,
Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Ronny Cox. 114 min.

Tron (1982)
Lisberger / Kushner / Walt Disney Prods. DIR .: Steven Lisberger. PROD .:
Donald Kushner. SCR .: Lisberger. PHOTOG .: Bruce Logan. ED .: Jeff
Gourson. DESIGN : Dean Edward Mitzner. MUSIC : Wendy Carlos. CAST :
Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan. 96 min.

Twelve Monkeys (1996)

Atlas Ent. / Classico / Universal. DIR .: Terry Gilliam. PROD .: Lloyd
Phillips and Charles Roven. SCR .: David and Janet Peoples. PHOTOG .:
Roger Pratt. ED .: Mick Andsley. DESIGN : Jeffrey Beecroft. ART DIR .:
Wm. Ladd Skinner. CAST : Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeleine Stowe,
Christopher Plummer. 131 min.

Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957) [aka The Beast from Space;
The Giant Ymir]
Morningside Movies / Columbia. DIR .: Nathan Juran. PROD .: Charles H.
Schneer. SCR .: Christopher Knopf, Robert Creighton Williams.
PHOTOG .: Irving Lippman. SFX : Ray Harryhausen. CAST : William
Hopper, Joan Taylor, Frank Puglia. 82 min.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Walt Disney Prods. DIR .: Richard Fleischer. SCR .: Earl Felton (based on
the Jules Verne novel). PHOTOG .: Franz Planer. ED .: Elmo Williams.
CAST : Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, James Mason. 127 min.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

MGM / Polaris. DIR .: Stanley Kubrick. PROD .: Kubrick. SCR .: Kubrick,
Arthur C. Clarke (based on Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”).
S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y ❖ 243

PHOTOG .: Geoffrey Unsworth, John Alcott. ED .: Ray Lovejoy. SFX :

Wally Veevers, Douglas Trumbull, Con Pederson, Tom Howard.
CAST : Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester. 141 min.

The Twonky (1953)

Arch Oboler Prods. DIR .: Arch Oboler. PROD .: Oboler. SCR .: Oboler.
PHOTOG .: Joseph F. Biroc. ED .: Betty Steinberg. CAST : Hans Conreid,
Janet Warren, Billy Lynn. 84 min.

The Undersea Kingdom (1936)

Republic. DIR .: Joseph Kane, B. Reeves Eason. PROD .: Barney Sarecky.
SCR .: John Rathmell, Maurice Geraghty, Oliver Drake. CAST : Ray
“Crash” Corrigan, Monte Blue, Lon Chaney Jr. SERIAL : 12 episodes.

Universal Soldier (1992)

Carolco / Centropolis / IndieProd. DIR .: Roland Emmerich. SCR .: Dean
Devlin, Christopher Leitch, and Richard Rothstein. PHOTOG .: Karl
Walter Lindenlaub. ED .: Michael J. Duthie. DESIGN : Nelson Coates.
CAST : Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Ally Walker. 102 min.

Videodrome (1982)
Famous Players / Filmplan (Canada). DIR .: David Cronenberg. PROD .:
Claude Héroux. SCR .: Cronenberg. PHOTOG .: Mark Irwin. ED .: Ron
Sanders. CAST : James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Peter
Dvorsky. 87 min.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

20th Century–Fox / Windsor. DIR .: Irwin Allen. PROD .: Allen. SCR .: Allen,
Charles Bennett. PHOTOG .: Winton C. Hoch, John Lamb. ED .: George
Boemler. CAST : Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Eden, Peter
Lorre. 105 min.

War of the Worlds (1953)

Paramount. DIR .: Byron Haskin. PROD .: George Pal. SCR .: Barré Lyndon
(based on the H. G. Wells novel). PHOTOG .: George Barnes. ED .: Everett
Douglas. CAST : Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne. 85 min.

Westworld (1973)
MGM. DIR .: Michael Crichton. PROD .: Paul N. Lazarus III. SCR .: Crich-
ton. PHOTOG .: Gene Polito. DESIGN : Herman Blumenthal. ED .: David
Bretherton. CAST : Richard Benjamin, Yul Brynner, James Brolin. 88 min.

When Worlds Collide (1951)

Paramount. DIR .: Rudolph Maté. PROD .: George Pal. SCR .: Sydney
Boehm (from the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie). PHOTOG .:
W. Howard Greene, John F. Seitz. ED .: Arthur P. Schmidt. CAST : Richard
Dere, Barbara Rush, Peter Hanson. 83 min.
244 ❖ S E L E C T F I L M O G R A P H Y

X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963)

Alta Vista Prods. / American International. DIR .: Roger Corman. PROD .:
Corman. SCR .: Robert Dillon, Ray Russell. PHOTOG .: Floyd Crosby.
CAST : Ray Milland, Harold Stone, Diana Van der Vlis. 76 min.

Zardoz (1974)
20th Century–Fox / John Boorman Prods. (Britain). DIR .: John
Boorman. PROD .: Boorman. SCR .: Boorman. PHOTOG .: Geoffrey
Unsworth. ED .: John Merrill. DESIGN : Anthony Pratt. CAST : Sean
Connery, Charlotte Rampling, John Alderton. 102 min.

Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952)

Republic. DIR .: Fred C. Brannon. SCR .: Ronald Davidson. PHOTOG .:
John McBurnie. ED .: Cliff Bell. CAST : Judd Holdren, Aline Towne,
Wilson Wood, Leonard Nimoy. SERIAL : 12 episodes.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Appleseed (Katayama, anime), 114

(Barton), 8 archetypal criticism, 46–9, 58–9
Abyss, The (Cameron), 117–18, 225 Armageddon (Bay), 6, 120, 226
Academy Awards, 118, 214n4 Arnold, Jack
Action Comics (comic), 72, 210n16 Incredible Shrinking Man, The (Arnold),
Adventures of Captain Marvel (serial), 73 98, 233
Adventures of Superman, The (TV series), It Came from Outer Space (Arnold), 45,
95 96, 234
Aelita (Protazanov), 83–4, 198 Arrival, The (Twohy), 226
Akira (Otomo, anime), 114, 115 Ash, Brian, 210n17
Alien (R. Scott), 9, 51–3, 181, 225 Asimov, Isaac, 70, 168
film series, 5, 8, 16, 30, 75, 188; see also Foundation (novel), 75
specific films I, Robot (stories), 75, 215n10
alien-invasion films, 4, 12, 48–9, 96–7, 144, “Three Laws of Robotics,” 71, 168,
145, 148 215n10
Alien Nation (Baker), 24 Astaire, Fred, 198
Alien Resurrection (Jeunet), 118 Astounding Stories (magazine), see Gerns-
Aliens (Cameron), 49, 225 back, Hugo
Allen, Nancy, 170 Atomic Age, 94–5, 98, 99, 211n45
Allen, Woody Autry, Gene, 93
Sleeper, 239
Zelig, 28 Babylon 5 (TV series), 17
Alphaville (Godard), 202 Back to the Future (Zemeckis), 46, 143, 226
Altered States (Russell), 51, 226 film series, 46, 143
Althusser, Louis, 40 Bacon, Francis, 124
Altman, Rick, 17, 31, 179, 195, 216n2 Barbarella (Vadim), 226
Amazing Colossal Man, The (B. I. Gordon), Batteries Not Included (Robbins), 148
98 Battle Beyond the Stars (Murakami), 108
Amazing Stories (magazine), see Gerns- Battlestar Galactica (TV series), 108
back, Hugo Baudrillard, Jean, 29–30, 108, 138, 214n30
Amblin Entertainment, 143 Baxter, John, 35, 36, 91–2, 95, 205n6
Amistad (Spielberg), 159 Bazin, André, 119
Analog (magazine), 70 Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The (Lourié),
Anderson, Michael 98, 99, 226
Logan’s Run, 13, 41–3, 104, 125, 126, 130, Beaver, Harold, 66
133, 235 Beginning of the End (B. I. Gordon), 227
1984 (1956), 125 Bellamy, Edward, 66, 67–9
Android (Lipstadt), 110, 161, 226 Equality (novel), 67
Andromeda Strain, The (Wise), 108, 226 Looking Backward (novel), 67–8, 124
anime, 112–16 Bergerac, Cyrano de, 64–5
genres of, 113, 212n50 Bermuda Triangle, 106, 147
apocalyptic films, 34, 39–40, 97, 98, 119– Bonestall, Chesley, 74, 100
20, 143, 146 Brecht, Bertolt, 4

❖ 245
246 ❖ I N D E X

Biskind, Peter, 96–7 Clarens, Carlos, 6, 179, 205n6

Black Hole, The (Nelson), 27, 227 Clarke, Arthur C., 38, 102
Blade Runner (R. Scott), 6, 7, 22, 33, 56–8, Childhood’s End (novel), 75
113, 163, 191, 203, 227 Other Side of the Sky, The (novel), 75
human artifice in, 14, 108–9, 116, 161 classical film narrative, 34
Blob, The (Yeaworth), 227 Clerks (Smith), 106
Body Snatchers (Ferrara), 19 Clockwork Orange, A (Kubrick), 54, 227–8
Boy and His Dog, A (Jones), 227 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spiel-
Brazil (Gilliam), 13, 125 berg), 12, 106, 107, 108, 142–60,
Brendel, El, 91 214n4, 215n17, 228
Brick Bradford Cocoon (Howard), 10, 228
comic, 72 cold war, 43, 48, 95, 96, 97
serial, 73 Colossus of New York, The (Lourié), 228
Bride of Frankenstein, The (Whale), 110, Columbia Pictures, 144, 158
118, 227 Coma (Crichton), 228
Brother from Another Planet, The (Sayles), comics, 72–4, 94, 164, 210n16
16, 24 illustrators, 74
Browne, Nick, 199–200 computer-generated imagery (CGI), see
Bruno, Guiliana, 54, 57–8 special effects, CGI
Bubble, The (Oboler), 227 Conquest of Space, The (Haskin), 99, 100,
Bubblegum Crisis (Akiyama et al., anime 228
series), 114 Contact (Zemeckis), 10, 143, 146
Buck Rogers Coppola, Francis Ford, 128
comic, 72 Corman, Roger
serial (Beebe and Goodkind), 73, 86, Day the World Ended, The, 98, 119, 229
92, 130, 131, 227 Frankenstein Unbound, 181
Bukatman, Scott, 54, 56, 76, 202–3 X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, 244
Burroughs, Edgar Rice, 68, 74 Corn, Joseph J., 85
Burroughs, William S., 76 Cornfeld, Stuart, 194
Buscombe, Edward, 17, 205n7 Countdown (Altman), 145
Bywater, Tim, 35, 45, 46 Cox, Ronny, 170
Crack in the World (Marton), 98
Cameron, James, 117 Crazy Ray, The (Clair), 86
Abyss, The, 117–18, 225 Creed, Barbara, 51–2
Aliens, 49, 225 on the abject, 188
see also Terminator, The; Terminator 2 Crichton, Michael
Campanella, Tommaso, 124 Coma, 228
Campbell, John W., Jr., 70–1, 168, 205n1, Westworld, 14, 103, 243
215n10 Cronenberg, David, 179, 182, 183, 184, 186,
defines science fiction, 3 191, 192, 195
Campbell, Joseph, 105–7 and Canadian film, 192–4, 198
Čapek, Karel, R.U.R. (play), 108 Rabid, 182
Carpenter, John Scanners, 239
Dark Star, 229 Videodrome, 182, 243
Escape from New York, 230 see also Fly, The (1986)
Thing, The, 241 Curse of the Fly, The (Sharp), 182
Captain Marvel (comic), 72 cyberpunk, 76–7, 108, 113, 118
Captain Video (TV series), 95 and hard-boiled tradition, 76
censorship, 164, 215n6 Cyborg (Pyun), 228
Chaplin, Charles, 81–3
Cherry 2000 (de Jarnatt), 49, 110, 161 D.A.R.Y.L. (Wincer), 161, 229
cinema vérité, 128 Daniken, Erich Von, 147
Cinemascope, 95, 100 Dante’s Peak (Donaldson), 6
Circuitry Man (Lovy), 162 Dark City (Proyas), 6, 14, 28, 30, 118, 139,
Clair, René, 86 228
I N D E X ❖ 247
Dark Star (Carpenter), 229 Empire Strikes Back, The (Lucas), 105, 230
Darwin, Charles, 66, 67 Emshwiller, Ed, 74
Davis, Geena, 184 Enemy Mine (Petersen), 24
Davis, Robert Con, 208n25 environmentalism, 104
Day the Earth Stood Still, The (Wise), 12, Escape from New York (Carpenter), 230
96, 97, 146, 229 Eve of Destruction (Gibbins), 24, 49, 52–3,
Day the World Ended, The (Corman), 98, 110, 161, 230
119, 229 Event Horizon (P. Anderson), 10, 22–3, 30
Deadly Mantis, The (Juran), 98 Exorcist, The (Friedkin), 145, 184
Deep Impact (Leder), 6, 120, 229 expressionism, 90, 126
Del Rey, Lester, 70
DeLillo, Don, 76 F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer (Hartl), 86
Deluge (Feist), 119 Famous Monsters of Filmland (magazine),
Demolition Man (Brambilla), 133 33
Demon Seed, The (Cammell), 42, 103, 229 Fantastic Voyage (Fleischer), 231
Depression, Great, 86, 87, 90 fantasy, 11, 28, 69, 120, 125, 142, 143, 177,
Destination Moon (Pichel), 37, 74, 99, 100, 195, 201
145, 229 defined, 30
Devil Doll, The (Browning), 90 and fantastic causality, 166–7
Devils Tower, 149, 151, 152, 153 fantastic mode of, 11, 22, 31, 123, 201
Dick Tracy (James and Taylor, serial), 92 hesitation in, 11, 16, 22, 31, 137
Dillon, Melinda, 149 marvelous mode of, 11, 14, 20, 31, 142,
Dinosaurus (Yeaworth), 98 143, 144–8, 151–2, 153, 155, 159, 186,
disaster films, 6 201, 215n17
Disneyland/Disney World, 118, 147, 154 relation to other narrative types, 11, 16
Doane, Mary Ann, 50, 51 and science fiction types, 12
Doctor X (Curtiz), 89, 230 as subversion, 55–6, 126, 165, 170, 177
Donaldson, Roger thematic types, 158, 213n23
Dante’s Peak, 6 uncanny mode of, 11, 14, 20–2, 31, 161–
Species, 75, 112, 239 5, 170, 174, 175, 177, 178, 186, 201
Donnelly, Ignatius, 68 Faust, 89, 167, 175
doppelgänger theme, 162, 170, 172–3 feminist criticism, 33, 49–54, 58, 59, 110,
Dr. Cyclops (Schoedsack), 5, 27, 89, 90, 112
229 Feuillade, Louis, 90
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (film versions), 184 Ferrer, Miguel, 166
Dr. Skinum (dir. unknown), 80 Fifth Element, The (Besson), 8, 16, 118, 231
Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick), 230 film noir, 6, 205n8
Dreyfuss, Richard, 142 Fin du monde, La (Gance), 120
Duel (Spielberg), 148 Five (Oboler), 231
Dune (Lynch), 230 Flash Gordon
Duvall, Robert, 129, 138 comic, 72
serials (Stephani and Taylor), 17, 26, 73,
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg), 12, 92, 231
33, 34, 106, 107, 143, 150, 159, 172, Fleischer, Richard
230 Fantastic Voyage, 231
Eagleton, Terry, 40 Soylent Green, 104, 239
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Sears), 43, 48, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
98, 230 (1954), 242
Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138: 4EB Flight of the Navigator (Kleiser), 231
(Lucas), 128, 213n19 Fly, The
Ellenshaw, Peter, 27 (1958, Neumann), 179, 182, 194, 231
Emmerich, Roland (1986, Cronenberg), 115, 179–80, 182–
Independence Day, 12, 20, 119, 146, 159 95, 197–8, 216n14, 217n18, 231
Stargate, 10, 118, 240 Flying G-Men (Horne and Taylor, serial), 92
Universal Soldier, 243 folklore, 58, 63
248 ❖ I N D E X

Forbidden Planet (Wilcox), 7, 22, 45, 47, structural approach to, 17, 28, 31, 60,
99, 100, 101, 162–3, 165, 231–2 201
Ford, Henry, 82 subversive dimension, 23, 44, 124, 177,
Forrest Gump (Zemeckis), 28 178
Foucault, Michel, 134 supertext, 10
4D Man, The (Yeaworth), 98 Gernsback, Hugo, 69, 74
400 Blows, The (Truffaut), 156 Amazing Stories (magazine), 69–71, 74
Fourth Man, The (Verhoeven), 165 Astounding Stories (magazine), 70, 72, 75
Frank Reade Library (novel series), 69 naming “science fiction,” 70
Frankenhooker (Henenlotter), 110 Science Wonder Stories (magazine), 70,
Frankenstein (Whale), 5, 89, 112, 167, 180, 74
181–2, 211n37, 232 Superworld (comic), 72
Frankenstein Unbound (Corman), 181 Getz, John, 184
Franklin, H. Bruce, 65, 68, 209n3 Ghost Breakers, The (Marshall), 8
Frazetta, Frank, 74 Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, anime), 114
Freud, Sigmund, 45, 46, 48, 49, 51 Ghostbusters (Reitman), 8
From the Earth to the Moon (Haskin), 232 Giant Claw, The (Sears), 98, 232
Frye, Northrop, 10–11, 16 Gibson, William, 76
Fun in the Butcher Shop (dir. unknown), Neuromancer (novel), 76–7
80 Gifford, Denis, 36–7
Futureworld (Heffron), 232 Giger, H. R., 74–5
Gilliam, Terry
Galaxy (magazine), 75 Brazil, 13, 125
Gance, Abel, 120 Twelve Monkeys, 242
gangster films, 8, 45 Goble, Warwick, 74
Garr, Teri, 152 Godwin, Francis, 64
Gattaca (Niccol), 16, 21, 112, 115, 232 Godzilla (Gojira) (Honda [and Morse]),
Gauthier, Guy, 37 98, 113
Geduld, Harry, 37, 38 Goldberg, Rube, 81
Geissler, Ludwig, 68 Goldblum, Jeff, 183
gender construction, 10, 34, 50–3, 58, 110– Gordon, Andrew, 106, 147, 149, 152, 153,
12, 113 154
genetics, in science fiction, 10, 16, 25, 112, Gordon, Bert I.
115 Amazing Colossal Man, The, 98
genre, 3 Beginning of the End, 227
cultural dimension of, 17, 23–4, 31–2, Grant, Barry, 178
34, 40, 41, 44, 97, 200, 203 Greenberg, Harvey Roy, 192
cyclical character of, 216n2 Guffey, Carey, 149
differentiation, 8–9, 17–18, 31, 59, 81, Gunning, Tom, 78, 210–11n29
179, 181, 182, 186, 188, 195, 197–8, Guyver (anime series), 113
201–3 Guyver, The (George and Wang), 113, 232
empirical dilemma, 8 Guyver: Dark Hero (Wang), 113
essentialist approach to, 16, 18, 199
feminist approach to, 33, 49–54, 58, 59, Haas, Robert, 192
110 Haldane, J. B. S., 68
humanist approach to, 33, 35–8 Hammett, Dashiell, 76
as hybrid form, 192, 194 Haraway, Donna, 50, 51, 52, 208n34
ideological approach to, 33, 36, 41–4, Hardware (Stanley), 110, 177
58, 59, 60, 178, 201 Harryhausen, Ray, 98
and pastiche, 57, 105 Hartwell, David, 4, 64
postmodern approach to, 34, 36, 54–8, Haskin, Byron
60, 183, 195, 199–200, 209n48 Conquest of Space, The, 99, 100, 228
psychoanalytic approach to, 33, 45–6, From the Earth to the Moon, 232
48–9, 58 Robinson Crusoe on Mars, 99, 238
self-reflexivity, 25 War of the Worlds, 48, 96, 143, 148, 243
I N D E X ❖ 249
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 65 (1978, Kaufman), 19, 233
Heinlein, Robert, 70 (1993 [as Body Snatchers], Ferrara), 19
Puppet Masters, The (novel), 75 Invasion, U.S.A. (Green), 233
Red Planet (novel), 75 Invisible Boy, The (Hoffman), 47, 233
Rocket Ship Galileo (novel), 75 Invisible Man, The (Whale), 233
Heisenberg, Werner, 169 Invisible Ray, The (Hillyer), 21, 89, 234
Heldreth, Leonard, 191 Island of Lost Souls (Kenton), 88, 89, 234
Hidden, The (Sholder), 232 It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Cahn),
Hitchcock, Alfred, 165 234
Hollinger, Veronica, 76 It Came from Outer Space (Arnold), 45, 96,
Hollow Man (Verhoeven), 164 234
Homer, The Iliad, 64
Honda, Inoshiro Jackson, Rosemary, 20, 24, 30, 31, 56, 59,
Godzilla (Gojira), 98, 113 123–4, 141, 142, 144, 161, 165, 176,
Rodan, 113 201, 206n25, 213n23
Hope, Bob, 8 James, Edward, 67, 68, 70, 75
horror films, 10, 11, 45, 90, 145, 148, 165, defines science fiction, 4
180, 191, 216n6 types of science fiction narrative, 14,
links with science fiction, 5, 6, 9, 14, 16, 65–6, 95
21, 23, 31, 51, 81, 89–90; see also The Jameson, Fredric, 40, 56, 123
Fly (1986) Jaws (Spielberg), 144, 148
Houdini, Harry, 90 Johnny Mnemonic (Longo), 118
House Un-American Activities Committee Johnson, William, 33, 35, 36–7
(HUAC), 133 Journey to the Center of the Earth (Levin),
Howard, Ron, 118 234
Cocoon, 10, 228 Judex (Feuillade, serial), 90
Willow, 118 Jung, Carl, 46, 48
Hugo Award, 74 Juran, Nathan
humanist criticism, 35–8 Deadly Mantis, The, 98
Huxley, Aldous, 3, 124 Twenty Million Miles to Earth, 242
Brave New World (novel), 76, 124, 125, Jurassic Park (Spielberg), 25, 29, 116, 143,
130, 132 159, 234
Hyams, Peter Just Imagine (Butler), 13, 85–6, 91, 125,
Outland, 236 126, 130, 211n37, 234
Timecop, 242 juvenile fiction, 75–6

I Married a Monster from Outer Space Kadrey, Richard, 77

(Fowler), 21, 232 Karloff, Boris, 89
iconography of science fiction, 4, 8, 17–18, Kauffmann, Stanley, 147
31, 33, 41, 45, 49, 50, 130, 184, 200 Kawin, Bruce F., 9, 10, 179, 180, 181, 185,
in serials, 91, 94 190, 206n17, 216n6
ideological criticism, 40–5, 48, 49, 51, 58, Keaton, Buster, 81
59, 60, 123, 127, 129, 141 Kellner, Douglas, 40, 41
Illustrated Man, The (Smight), 233 Killbots (Wynorski), 110
Impossible Voyage, The (Méliès), 25, 80 King of the Rocket Men (Brannon, serial),
Incredible Shrinking Man, The (Arnold), 92
98, 233 Knight, Damon, 144
Independence Day (Emmerich), 12, 20, Kubrick, Stanley, 37, 38, 100, 102
119, 146, 159 Clockwork Orange, A, 54, 227–8
Indiana Jones films, 154 Dr. Strangelove, 230
Industrial Revolution, 65, 66 see also 2001: A Space Odyssey
Invaders from Mars (Menzies), 20, 48, 233 Kyrou, Ado, 37
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
(1956, Siegel), 5, 19–23, 43, 44, 51, 56, La Valley, Albert, 25–6, 28–9, 80, 138
96, 97, 148, 181, 233 Lacan, Jacques, 45, 46, 49, 208n25
250 ❖ I N D E X

Landon, Brooks, 56, 203 Man They Could Not Hang, The (Grinde),
Lang, Fritz, 37, 100 180, 211n37
Woman in the Moon, 95, 99 Man Who Could Work Miracles, The
see also Metropolis (Mendes), 146
Last Starfighter, The (Castle), 116, 148, Mann and Machine (TV series), 52
234 Marooned (Sturges), 30, 145, 235
Lawnmower Man, The (Leonard), 28, 52, Mars Attacks! (Burton), 8, 98
118, 162, 235 Marvel Mystery Comics (comic), 210n16
Lawnmower Man 2 (Mann), 118 Marxism, 82
Leonard, Brett Master Mystery, The (Grossman and King,
Lawnmower Man, The, 28, 52, 118, 162, serial), 90
235 Matrix, The (Wachowski and Wachowski),
Virtuosity, 28, 118 28, 115, 118, 139, 235
Ley, Willy, 95 Méliès, Georges, 25–6, 37, 79–80, 91
Lloyd, Harold, 81 Impossible Voyage, The, 25, 80
Loeb, Harold, 69 Trip to the Moon, A, 25, 79, 116
Logan’s Run (M. Anderson), 13, 41–3, 104, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 80
125, 126, 130, 133, 235 melodrama, 201
London, Jack, 3, 65, 66 Melville, Herman, 66
Iron Heel, The (novel), 66 Menzies, William Cameron
Lost City, The (Revier, serial), 92 Invaders from Mars, 20, 48, 233
Lost in Space (Hopkins), 30 Things to Come, 13, 26, 37, 125, 126,
Lost World, The (Hoyt), 116 130, 198
Lourié, Eugène Meteor (Neame), 120
Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The, 98, 99, Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer (MGM), 87
226 Metropolis (Lang), 13, 22, 26, 56, 83–4, 85,
Colossus of New York, The, 228 86, 111, 125, 126, 130, 198
Lucanio, Patrick, 48–9 Milius, John, 144
Lucas, George, 105, 108, 128, 129, 131, 133, Mobile Suit Gundam (Fujiwara and
135, 136, 138, 140, 143, 166 Tomino, anime), 114
and Coppola, 128 Modern Electrics (magazine), 69
Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138: 4EB, Modern Times (Chaplin), 82–3
128, 213n19 monumentalism, 130
Empire Strikes Back, The, 105, 230 More, Sir Thomas, 64, 124
Return of the Jedi, 105, 107, 237 Utopia (novel), 124
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Motion Picture Association of America
Menace, 33, 105, 240 (MPAA), 164, 215n6
see also Star Wars; THX 1138 Mumford, Lewis, 124, 125
Lugosi, Bela, 8, 89 Murray, Janet, 118
Lyons, Mike, 117, 212n54 musicals, 14, 31, 86, 91, 93, 198, 201
Lyotard, Jean-François, 54 Myles, Lynda, 132, 134, 156
Mysterious Island, The (Hubbard), 24,
McCaffery, Larry 87–8, 125, 235
McConnell, Frank, 180 mythology, 11, 28, 49, 63, 64, 105
McDermott, Mary, 212n47
McHale, Brian, 77 Nationalist Club, 68
Machine Age, 63, 67, 68, 81–90, 180, Nebula Award, 104
211n33 Neumann, Kurt, 179
literature of, 94 Fly, The (1958), 179, 182, 194, 231
values of, 86 Rocketship X-M, 99, 100, 238
McOmie, Maggie, 132 Newitz, Annalee, 113–15, 212n50
Mad Love (Freund), 89, 235 1984 (1956, M. Anderson), 125
mad scientist, 4, 8, 9, 81, 90 Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984, Radford),
Making Mr. Right (Seidelman), 161, 235 125
Man Made Monster (Waggner), 180, 235 Nobel Prize, 184
I N D E X ❖ 251
Norton, Andre, 75 Rabid (Cronenberg), 182
Nosferatu (Murnau), 145 racism, and science fiction, 16
Radar Men from the Moon (Brannon,
Oberth, Herman, 100 serial), 92, 96, 237
Oboler, Arch Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg), 143,
Bubble, The, 227 154
Five, 231 Ramsaye, Terry, 78
Twonky, The, 243 Return of the Fly, The (Bernds), 182, 237
Omega Man, The (Sagal), 236 Return of the Jedi (Lucas), 105, 107, 237
Omen, The (Donner), 145 Ricoeur, Paul, 123, 127
On the Beach (Kramer), 98, 236 Riders to the Stars (Carlson), 237
Orwell, George, 76, 125, 140 Roberts, J. W., 68
1984 (novel), 76, 124 Robida, Albert, 74
Outer Limits (TV series), 95 Robinson, W. R., 212n47
Outland (Hyams), 236 Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Haskin), 99,
Panic in the Year Zero (Milland), 236 RoboCop (Verhoeven), 14, 16, 22, 33, 52,
Paul, Frank R., 74 110, 161, 163–78, 191, 203, 215n6, 238
Paul, Robert W., 78 RoboCop 2 (Kershner), 238
Penley, Constance, 45, 46 Robot Jox (S. Gordon), 238
Percy, Walker, 3, 155, 214–15n17 Robot Monster (Tucker), 199
Perfect Woman, The (Knowles), 110 robots, 14, 34, 47, 64, 92–3, 102–3, 104,
Perils of Pauline, The (Gasnier and Mac- 137, 197, 211n41
Kenzie, serial), 90 combined with humans, 114–15; see
Phantom Creeps, The (Beebe and Good- also RoboCop
kind, serial), 8, 236 humanoid, 15, 30, 50, 52, 108–10
Phantom Empire, The (Brower and Eason, as icons of science fiction, 4, 8, 36, 92,
serial), 93, 211n37, 236 161, 162, 200
Philadelphia Experiment, The (Raffill), 236 as police/defense force, 128, 137, 141,
Phillips, Julia, 143 177; see also RoboCop
Phillips, Michael, 143 “Three Laws of Robotics,” 71, 168,
Picart, Caroline, 180 215n10
Piel, Harry, 90 Rocketeer, The (Johnston), 238
Plan 9 from Outer Space (Wood), 236 Rocketship X-M (Neumann), 99, 100, 238
Planet Comics (comic), 72, 72 Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (TV series), 95
Planet of the Apes (Schaffner), 104, 237 Rodan (Honda), 113
Plato, The Republic, 124 Rodley, Chris, 183
Pleasence, Donald, 136 Rogers, Hubert, 70
Poe, Edgar Allan, 3, 65, 66, 70 Romanticism, 66
Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The Romanyshyn, Robert, 29, 120, 197
(novel), 66 Ruppert, Peter, 138–9, 212n2
Poltergeist (Hooper), 151 Russell, Bertrand, 68
postmodernism, 54–8, 60, 76–7, 108–10, Ryan, Michael, 40, 41
127, 138, 195, 209n48
Predator (McTiernan), 237 S.O.S. Tidal Wave (Auer), 119
Psycho (Hitchcock), 165, 184, 191 Sagan, Carl, 143
psychoanalytic criticism, 45–6, 48–9, 51, Said, Edward, 147
58 St. John, J. Allen, 74
pulp magazines, 63, 68, 69–75, 94, 210n16 samurai films, 6
Purple Monster Strikes, The (Bennet and Saturn 3 (Donen), 238
Brannon, serial), 96, 237 Scanners (Cronenberg), 239
Pye, Michael, 132, 134, 156 Schelde, Per, 58–9
Pynchon, Thomas, 76 science studies, 208n46
Science Wonder Stories (magazine), see
Questor Tapes, The (Colla), 237 Gernsback, Hugo
252 ❖ I N D E X

Scott, Ridley, 108 Amistad, 159

Alien, 9, 51–3, 181, 225 Duel, 148
see also Blade Runner Jaws, 144, 148
Seconds (Frankenheimer), 103, 239 Jurassic Park, 25, 29, 116, 143, 159, 234
Sears, Fred F. Raiders of the Lost Ark, 143
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 43, 48, 98, see also Close Encounters of the Third
230 Kind; E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Giant Claw, The, 98, 232 Springer, Claudia, 51, 52
Segal, Howard, 69, Spy Smasher (Witney, serial), 92
Sennett, Mack, 81 Stapledon, Olaf, 68
serials, 6, 81, 86, 90–6, 211n41 Star Trek
comic sources, 72–3 film series, 104, 108; see also specific
homage to, 105, 130–1 films
structure of, 90, 94 TV series (original), 17, 95, 100
technological influence on, 92–3 Star Trek – The Motion Picture (Wise),
Shadow, The (Horne, serial), 92 108, 239–40
Shelley, Mary, 65, 66, 67, 164, 180 Star Trek: The Next Generation (TV
Frankenstein (novel), 66, 67, 164, 180 series), 118
Last Man, The (novel), 66 Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner),
Short Circuit (Badham), 239 146
Shute, Nevil, On the Beach (novel), 76 Star Trek: Voyager (TV series), 118
Siegel, Don, 37 Star Wars (Lucas), 26, 33, 56, 104, 105, 107,
Silent Running (Trumbull), 104, 108, 239 116, 133, 138, 143, 144, 148, 172, 240
Simak, Clifford D., 70 film series, 6, 26, 101, 105, 106, 138,
City (novel), 75 146; see also specific films
Six Hours to Live (Dieterle), 88, 180, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom
211n37, 239 Menace (Lucas), 33, 105, 240
slasher films, 191 Stargate (Emmerich), 10, 118, 240
Sleeper (W. Allen), 239 Starship Troopers (Verhoeven), 6, 20,
Small Change (Truffaut),156 119–20, 148, 164, 175, 177, 240
Smith, E. E. “Doc,” 70 Startling Stories (magazine), 75
Smith, Kevin, 106 Steel and Lace (Farino), 110
Smith, Kurtwood, 170 Stepford Wives, The (Forbes), 50–1, 103,
Sobchack, Thomas, 35, 45, 46 110, 162, 240
Sobchack, Vivian, 35, 40–1, 45, 46, 51 Sterling, Bruce, 76
Sontag, Susan, 17–18, 31, 35, 38–40, 41, 43, Stern, Michael, 40, 41
98, 144, 206nn23,31, 214n2 Stevenson, Robert Louis, 66
Sony Pictures, 158 Stewart, Garrett, 24–5, 78, 127, 130
Soylent Green (Fleischer), 104, 239 Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tom’s
Spaceballs (Brooks), 8 Cabin (novel), 68
special effects, 3, 24, 41, 96, 100, 105, 108, Strange Days (Bigelow), 28
116–20, 217n2 Sturgeon, Theodore, 70
CGI (computer-generated imagery), 26, More Than Human (novel), 75
28, 116–19, 135, 212n54 Superman
early history of, 80 comic, 72, 210n16
influence of Bell Laboratories, 116 serial, 73, 95
morphing, 117–18 Superman and the Mole Men (Sholem),
and reality illusion, 25 95
rear projection, 27 supernatural elements, of science fiction,
Schufftan process, 26 10, 11
Species (Donaldson), 75, 112, 239 Superworld (comic), see Gernsback, Hugo
Sphere (Levinson), 30 Suvin, Darko, 8
Spielberg, Steven, 34, 105, 108, 142, 143–4, defines science fiction, 4, 165
149, 150, 151, 152, 154–6, 158, 159 Swathe, Robert, 158
and Amblin Entertainment, 143 Swift, Jonathan, 65, 176, 177
I N D E X ❖ 253
Tarratt, Margaret, 45, 49 Tolstoi, Alexei, 84
Taylorism, 82 Tom Corbett: Space Cadet (TV series), 95
Technicolor, 87, 95, 100 Top Gun (T. Scott), 193
technology, 4, 9, 12, 19, 22, 24, 25, 28, 43, Top Hat (Sandrich), 198
49, 56, 81, 192, 194 Total Recall (Verhoeven), 55, 164, 165, 175,
and efficiency movement, 68 193, 242
fear of, 41–2, 99, 103, 113, 116, 119, 120, Tremaine, F. Orlin, 70
126, 213n11, 214n2 Trip to the Moon, A (Méliès), 25, 79, 116
futuristic, 125, 131 Tron (Lisberger), 56, 116–17, 242
history of, 63 Truffaut, François, 156
impact on Western culture, 29, 36, 65, Truman Show, The (Weir), 139
88, 94, 116, 217n3 Trumbull, Douglas, 104, 108
and postmodernism, 59, 77, 108 Tunnel, Der (Bernhardt), 86
of reproduction, 30, 52, 120, 127 Tunnel, The (Elvey), 86
and social evolution, 67 Twelve Monkeys (Gilliam), 242
and technoculture, 40, 50, 52, 172, 178 Twentieth Century–Fox, 194
values of, 140 Twenty Million Miles to Earth (Juran), 242
television, 94–5 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1907,
influence of serial on, 95 Méliès), 80
Terminal Man, The (Hodges), 14, 103, 162, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
240 (1954, Fleischer), 242
Terminator, The (Cameron), 14, 22, 52, Twilight Zone, The (TV series), 95
108, 110, 161, 240–1 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick), 22, 26,
Terminator 2 (Cameron), 14, 15, 22, 33, 38, 99–102, 104, 105, 108, 146, 202,
49, 108–10, 115, 118, 161, 172, 203, 212n47, 242–3
241 2010 (Hyams), 146
Testa, Bart, 183, 194 Twonky, The (Oboler), 243
Them! (Douglas), 39, 98, 148, 241
Thing, The (Carpenter), 241 UFOs, 96, 143, 147, 152, 156
Thing from Another World, The (Nyby), 9, Undersea Kingdom, The (Kane and Eason,
13, 20, 43–4, 45, 48, 51, 96, 181, 241 serial), 92–3, 243
Things to Come (Menzies), 13, 26, 37, 125, Universal Soldier (Emmerich), 243
126, 130, 198 utopias, 4, 12, 13, 16, 41, 69, 81, 82–7, 123–
Thirteenth Floor, The (Rusnak), 118 5, 130, 133, 138–9, 146, 209–10n10,
This Island Earth (Newman), 241 212n2, 214n29
THX 1138 (Lucas), 13, 123–41, 154, 166, and escapism, 123, 127
213n19, 241 interrogative character of, 128–9, 134,
Tichi, Cecelia, 86, 94 141
Time After Time (Meyer), 241 literary tradition of, 124–5
Time Machine, The (Pal), 37, 242 political dimension of, 125, 126
time travel, 46
Timecop (Hyams), 242 Van Vogt, A. E., 75
“Today and Tomorrow” pamphlets, 68 Voyage of the Space Beagle, The (novel),
Todorov, Tzvetan, 10–12, 17, 19, 20, 22, 28, 75
31, 59, 123, 144, 146, 158, 162, 179, World of Null A, The (novel), 75
206n17 Verhoeven, Paul, 163–5, 169, 175, 177,
and fantastic hesitation, 16, 22, 124, 215n11
137 Fourth Man, The, 165
and science fiction, 14, 145 Hollow Man, 164
and the supernatural, 159 as satirist, 175, 176, 177
on themes of discourse, 158, 188, 189– Starship Troopers, 6, 20, 119–20, 148,
90 164, 175, 177, 240
on themes of the self, 15, 162 Total Recall, 55, 164, 165, 175, 193, 242
on themes of vision, 158, 162, 188–9 and violence, 164
and the uncanny, 164, 174 see also RoboCop
254 ❖ I N D E X

Verne, Jules, 65, 66, 67, 70, 80, 198 When Worlds Collide (Maté), 119, 243
Around the World in 80 Days (novel), 66 White, Pearl, 90
From the Earth to the Moon (novel), 66, Weir, Peter
79 Truman Show, The, 139
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea Witness, 193
(novel), 66 Williamson, Jack, 70
Videodrome (Cronenberg), 182, 243 Humanoids, The (novel), 75
Vinton, Arthur, 68 Willow (Howard), 118
Virilio, Paul, 129, 132, 134, 135, 138, 139, Wild Child, The (Truffaut),156
175, 214n30 Wilson, Richard Guy, 81
virtual reality, 28, 34, 118 Wise, Robert
Virtuosity (Leonard), 28, 118 Andromeda Strain, The, 108, 226
Vonnegut, Kurt, 76 Day the Earth Stood Still, The, 12, 96, 97,
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (I. Allen), 146, 229
98, 243 Star Trek – The Motion Picture, 108, 239–
Waggner, George Witness (Weir), 193
Man Made Monster, 180, 235 Wolf Man, The (Waggner), 184
Wolf Man, The, 184 Woman in the Moon (Lang), 95, 99
War of the Worlds (Haskin), 48, 96, 143, World War II combat films, 6
148, 243 Wright, Judith Hess, 40, 43, 206–7n31
Wasko, Janet, 217n2 Wright, Will, 31
Weller, Peter, 167
Wells, H. G., 3, 65, 67, 68, 70, 73, 75, 77, 80,
143, 146, 198 X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (Corman),
First Men in the Moon (novel), 80 244
Invisible Man, The (novel), 67
Island of Dr. Moreau (novel), 67 Yeaworth, Irwin S., Jr.
Shape of Things to Come, The (novel), Blob, The, 227
84 Dinosaurus, 98
and Things to Come (Menzies film), 37, 4D Man, The, 98
84, 85, 125
Time Machine, The (novel), 67, 78
When the Sleeper Wakes (novel), 124 Zardoz (Boorman), 244
westerns, 6, 31, 45, 93, 200–01 Zelig (W. Allen), 28
Westworld (Crichton), 14, 103, 243 Zemeckis, Robert
Whale, James, 180 Back to the Future, 46, 143, 226
Bride of Frankenstein, The, 110, 118, 227 Contact, 10, 143, 146
Frankenstein, 5, 89, 112, 167, 180, 181–2, Forrest Gump, 28
211n37, 232 Zombies of the Stratosphere (Brannon,
Invisible Man, The, 233 serial), 202, 244